From time to time the fact that our children are not taking enough exercise, are eating too much and are likely to have lower life expectancy than preceding generations triggers a debate around getting them more active. One side argues that what is needed is non-competitive sport. They argue that children who never win, indeed can never expect to win become demoralised and give up before they discover the joys of sport. The counter view is that competitive sport is vital to a child’s development. It teaches how to win and lose, the element of competition improves effort and performance. This argument is presented as an either/or choice. You have non-competitive ‘exercise’ or you have competition.
I do think that this rather misses the point.
25-30 years ago my Dad was paying me a visit and I was running a 10k race one evening. I was, at that time, a very committed runner. I was in good shape and thought I could get a good time. So I asked him to come on down and watch the race. It was a local race with a small field in the seaside town where I lived. From the start we climbed a very steep cliff road, then an out and back course to plunge back down the hill ready for a seafront finish. I wanted my Dad to be proud of me (what child does not?) and so pushed hard. In the last stages of the race I was behind someone I knew always posted good times and I determined to hang on. I pounded down the cliff and emptied myself in the finishing straight. For me it was a very fast time, in fact a lifetime best that I have never beaten. I nearly threw up with the effort.
When I met up with my Dad and while waiting to get the official time he looked puzzled “I don’t get it. You were a long way behind the winners. You had no chance of winning, so why bother? You must be daft. And this lot still finishing well they are beyond belief.”
I didn’t know it at the time but he had just summed up a zero sum view of the world. In this world only the first place counts. Second place is first loser. And unless you can win there is no point in competing.
Much more recently the BBC presenter Clare Balding summed up an opposing view of the world. After watching her brother run the London marathon her niece asked her if Daddy had won and she replied “Not quite. Everyone did.”
I have never been lucky enough to run a big city marathon but even in the local races I take part in, the same spirit exists. Other peoples times and positions are quite irrelevant. They set a general benchmark of what is achievable and as such the competition spurs everyone on. Apart from a few at the very front of the field we are all running our own race. My winning does not prevent someone else from winning their own race. I am competitive and I will race individuals from time to time during races, I’ll also shout encouragement to those I pass, I try to cheer the marshals and have even applauded spectators for cheering us all on. When I have finished I sometimes wander back along the course to cheer on those still running. You see it’s nice to win, but it’s nicer if we all win.
The problem with the zero sum model is that winning equates to beating. Every person who finishes in front of you diminishes your achievement. Everyone behind you has to be ‘worse’ or inferior to you. With this mindset it is hard to truly celebrate the success of others whether they are in front or behind you. Winners don’t want to help losers (after all they might turn the tables) and winning is everything.
Sadly this attitude usually starts with the parents. My Dad may not have understood why I race when I can’t win but at least he wasn’t overly pushy. We have all witnessed pushy parents, they crop up everywhere and the sports field and school sports day brings them out in droves. All that matters is that their child wins and is seen to win. Their zero sum mentality that means that others have to lose and they are quite prepared to help that losing along.
There will always be someone better than you and this attitude can only lead to frustration and disappointment.
Fortunately I do think we can have it all. We can have real competition, with winners and no losers. We can all aim to be the best we can, to improve our performance, learn from those who are better than us and encourage and teach whenever we can. And if you think that isn’t possible then look at the finish line of any marathon and show me a loser.