A Culture of Competition

By Ian Anderson

The year was 1986. My soccer career still blazed in all its glory, and at the height of that season my mother snapped a picture of me chasing the ball. Teeth bared, curly locks flowing, I would not not be the reason the Snakes went down. (Jerry might have been the reason; when the aforementioned picture was taken, he was probably on his back counting the clouds as his mom screamed that she was about to take him home.) It’s been a few years, but a small bit of competition still gets my blood flowing. Back then, all it took to get me moving was a simple phrase from my father: “I bet I can beat you.” And even now those words have power over me.

Every once in awhile I catch a glimpse of the boy in that picture, but now it’s in the faces of my children. Each one of them has tasted the richness of winning, and they are often motivated the way I am — and it scares me. I know more than ever why my dad always said winning was “frosting on the cake,” why he never let me compete without telling me he was proud of me before the game even began, why he wanted me to know there was so much more to whatever game I was playing ­— so much more to life in general — and I have begun to repeat those words to my sons.

I’ve taught now for a few years, and I’ve observed for myself what an overly competitive message from home can do to a child. Getting the grades and winning on the court can easily become the only way to measure worth. The joy of learning, the joy of playing, and most important, the joy of relationships can be torn to pieces when being on the top blinds us.

Of course, this competitive spirit runs through our culture effortlessly in the form of a million posts per minute on the social media of your choice. It’s not the Internet’s fault — we’ve been comparing ourselves to one another from the beginning of time — but now we don’t have to leave our homes to be jealous of our neighbors or our crosstown friends.

We say we love independence and freedom, but really we just want what the next guy has, whether it’s his talent, his family, or his new truck. And that’s what competition does at its worst; it reduces what we have in our own eyes and makes us want more, more, more.

I’m tired of it. I want to show my children that I actually love them no matter how well they do in school or on the field. All the wins and good grades do taste good, but frosting is best when had sparingly. At the end of a hard-fought game or a long project, we lose much if we haven’t enjoyed the process. There is joy in the game, even just playing the game for the sake of lying in the grass and counting the clouds.

Ian Anderson is a teacher, a husband, and a dad. He lives with his family in Central Kansas. Occasionally, he tweets here: @ian_writes.

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