Friday, July 9, 2010

More on competition

Who benefits from a society focused on competition? When did the push for Youth Sports emerge? or competitive classrooms? We have these myths about the benefits of competition, some of it seems based on social darwinism, others perhaps on religious traditions. We can all repeat the arguments - it's good for kids to compete, makes them tough, teaches them sportsmanship, teaches them teamwork, etc. I haven't seen any research that shows that youth sports is of more benefit than the science club or the choral group. While it appears that it is important for kids to be involved with their peers, the competition in and of itself doesn't appear to have any value.

Dan Pink in his new book Drive makes a really interesting point about what drives people. What the research shows, is that rewards for finishing first increase performance only when the task is easy and when it requires little thinking. Ala the production line at factories in the 1950's. But, when a task requires thought, then performance incentives actually hinder production. He explains it nicely in this TED talk.

I went to the beach recently with my son who is seven and his friend who is nine. For these two kids it was as if nothing was fun unless someone was keeping score. Dolphins and kayakers were toiling around in the ocean, two beautiful old planes circle overhead, lots of shells to find, creepy creatures washed up from the ocean. Yet, they pouted. They wanted to have other kids show up and have a big football game. Because then they would have the opportunity to keep score, perhaps even the opportunity to beat others. When I played football with them, it wasn't near enough to play catch. That had to be considered the 'warm-up'. The game, and the score, was the thing.

Sports, I've argued, are a way to 'tranquilize ourselves with the trivial' to quote Becker. But, perhaps that's not all. Perhaps, our schools and activities were designed to create competitive individuals, because that's what the factories needed in a workforce, but those factories are all but gone.

We have a media culture that glorifies competition above all else -reality shows, 24 hour sports entertainment. Schools where nothing else matters but test scores. A culture that's raising another generation of kids intent on competition, in a world where collaboration is essential.

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