Promoting competition in all things is as American as baseball, our national past-time. It’s no accident that baseball-derived terms — striking out, coming out of left field — are used to describe clutch competitive situations in every arena of life.
For women, it’s finally socially acceptable to swing for the fences at work and play as we shatter gender barriers and vie for pay equity.
If you have that inborn drive to rack up your own wins it’s all good. Right?
In reviewing hundreds of research studies on competition and performance, the American Psychological Association found no clear connection between the two. Some studies found competition to be an effective motivator. Others showed how winner-take-all competition can derail a positive outcome.
In “No Contest: The Case Against Competition,” author Alfie Kohn presents an extensive research-based examination of MEGA (mutually exclusive goal attainment) — a.k.a. winner-take-all — competition, with these highlights:
- Superior performance not only does not require competition, it usually seems to require its absence
- A competitive mindset makes transforming organizations and society harder because these things require collective effort and long-term commitment
- Sports competition might be less healthy than we think (non-competitive games can be as enjoyable and challenging as competitive ones)
- Competition alone does not build good character because it often undermines self esteem (most competitors lose most of the time)
Time to dial it back if your competitive streak has you screaming at a Scrabble loss, or makes you a “bad sport” in ways you wouldn’t want your children to model.
However, to attain the top spot(s) in many fields you’ll probably need to compete full on. That’s most obviously true in pro sports, like baseball.
In that I raised a son who pitched four seasons for the Detroit Tigers, I got a front row seat on those who pursue MLB status. Turns out, it was an excellent vantage point from which to observe good or bad competitive behavior that applies equally well to non-athletic competition.
Compete for Goals, Not Gloating
My biggest takeaway is illustrated by the following two examples.
Exhibit A: The sports parents who “coach” their kid from the sidelines, challenge the ref’s calls, and boast about their kid’s stats while schooling you on your kid’s “potential.”
I met Exhibit A parents on an elite travel team for 12-year-olds. Their son threw and hit well, but wasn’t a team player. Every at bat, before stepping into the batter’s box, he looked up in the stands for direction from his dad. The parents talked about their son’s future MLB prospects. He never played baseball in college or beyond.
Exhibit B: The sports parents who help with whatever a coach needs, makes sure their kid is well prepared for practice and competition, and cheer on the team as a whole, but rarely talk about their own child.
I met Exhibit B parents on my son’s Vanderbilt team. In two years of sitting with them in the stands I never heard them brag. Their son was well-respected even though he sat out most of his freshman season, due to an injury. Two years later, he was the number one 2015 MLB Draft pick. He’s now the Atlanta Braves’ starting shortstop.
A good competitor, in any field, is a team player who deals well with losses or setbacks as they continue to set their own goals and figure out how to improve their performance. David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” says, “All athletes must be evaluators of their own development, especially as they all get better and better.”