Crafting a Healthy Competitive Spirit

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An interview with Ashley Merryman by Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

In my family, competition was fostered.  In sports, in school, and even at home between siblings, I was often measured against others and against my own personal best. It was all so much, but we excelled and achieved new heights.  However, recently at my daughter’s soccer tournament when her team lost every. single. game. the girls didn’t seem upset.  They actually seemed pleased with their performance and claimed to be “having fun.” And I wondered.  Has the pendulum of competition swung so far in the other direction that our children no longer see the merits in competition?  Is it just about effort? Does winning matter? For answers, we turned to Ashley Merryman, co-author with Po Bronson of, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. — Abbie Schiller, President and Founder, TMC

How do you define competition?

Competition, at it’s best, is when people push themselves to achieve something beyond what they thought they were capable of. It’s not necessarily about only winning. It’s about bettering ourselves. A great competitor wins and loses well. A poor competitor wins and loses poorly.

How is competition beneficial?

Humans are social creatures.

Therefore, we can use other people (or the other team) to inspire us to push ourselves harder to improve our performance. This way we we’re less likely to take our talent or drive for granted. Exposure to others provides a helpful context to help better understand ourselves.

Good competitors understand that improved performance and mastery does not happen in the moment, but over time.

Personally, I exercise on my elliptical at home, but it’s when I go to the gym, that I experience a real work-out.

What are the signs that a child does not have a healthy relationship to competition?

  • Expecting to win every time. This indicates a narcissism and lack of respect for the opponent.
  • “Hating” the other team or opponent.
  • Feels the rule enforcer is the “bad guy.” This shows an entitlement around winning.

What are a few essential messages parents should send their kids about competition?

  • Usually the question we ask the loser is, what did you do that you could improve upon? We don’t typically ask winners that question. So, a good guiding message to send our kids is: It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you played the game. It’s about examining what lessons were learned, and what could be improved.
  • Kids need to be able and even encouraged to make mistakes without any consequences, and without feeling “watched” or judged. They need to be able to be bad at whatever they’re doing. This way the child can explore the activity fully, because there’s no pressure to succeed.
  • True beginners should not be in a competition. Once a level of mastery has been accomplished, then competition can be introduced. When you’re learning, beating the other guy – that’s the excitement of competition. But when you’re elite, when you’ve achieved mastery, the best competition is yourself.
  • Children should be challenged. If the child is easily achieving the goal, then parents and coaches can offer up challenges – it’s a powerful way to learn and grow.
  • Respond to kids’ mistakes in a relaxed and non-judgmental way. Get curious with your child and encourage him/her to introspect and explore what are a variety of choices s/he could make should s/he be faced with that obstacle again. We want to come up with lots of choices, not allow the child to fixate on one – it’s too limiting. Stay supportive and warm.
  • Respond to your own mistakes in a relaxed and non-judgmental way. Talk out loud about the things you could have done differently to affect the change wanted. Leading by example like this is a powerful influence on our kids. Model recognizing the mistake, learning from it, and moving on. No brooding allowed!
  • Notice what you see other adults and children accomplishing, and comment on what you admire and how that inspires you to better yourself.

What if our child eschews competition? Should we encourage the quality nonetheless, or let it go?

Parents should ask themselves a few questions in order to find the best course of action for their child.

Does the child think they don’t have the skills? Did the child have a bad experience (practicing that instrument or while playing that sport?) Is the child apathetic? Is that child over-scheduled? Under-scheduled?

Once you’ve determined the answer, then parents can better figure-out if it’s in the child’s best interest to “push” them or not. There’s no one right answer. There’s value to sticking to something and seeing it through in order to experience improvement. (That experience is key – it keeps a child motivated and inspired to continue.) There’s also value to taking a break or stopping something altogether or finding a new approach.

Ashley Merryman, is an attorney, journalist, public speaker and NY Times best selling author of two books, written with Po Bronson, NurtureShock and Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Top Dog will be out in paperback March 18th.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions