We were terrible! One winter, as a young boy in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I played on a peewee hockey team. I use the term “played” lightly, for I was by far the worst player on the team. I wasn’t a strong skater; when the team skated north with the puck, I was still headed south. When we lined up for a face-off, the referee often had to direct me to the proper position for my forward position. I loved the game, but didn’t really understand it. We were the Red Wings of the Coon Rapids municipal hockey league, and we were terrible. We won one game – the last game of the season.
Today, as I watch the winter Olympic games from Sochi, Russia I am impressed with the skill and athleticism on display in each of the winter sports. You know what impresses me the most? It’s the desire to win, and the effort put forth in order to achieve a place on the medal podium. The last skier in the final run knows the time to beat, and she does what she has to do to beat it. The aerialist on the half-pipe knows the score he has to surpass, and he adds a difficult maneuver in order to surpass it. The figure skaters know their position in the standings, and add the flair and precision to their performance to achieve their goal. It’s competition. Competition breeds excellence. If you doubt that, tune in for one evening and see how competition breeds motivation and, in turn, motivation breeds improvement and success.
When my son was four, we enrolled him in T-ball. We parents standing along the base paths could identify rather quickly the kids who “got” the game and those who didn’t. Some were bored, drawing intricate designs in the infield dirt as their team was playing defense. I was rather surprised to learn at our first game that no score is kept. “Everyone’s a winner,” the coaches proclaimed proudly. Even my four year-old son was puzzled when he’d ask me after a game, “did we win, Dad?” I secretly kept score and shared the results with him. We weren’t supposed to do that, but I did it anyway. If they lost, I’d tell him where they could improve next time and if they won I’d tell him how a good winner celebrates his achievement. Because they didn’t keep score, because there were no winners or losers, the T-ball league missed the opportunity to teach our kids a valuable life lesson. Sure enough, at the end of the season everyone got a trophy. While the kids were taught the rudiments of baseball, they learned nothing about competition – what it means to work as a team to achieve a goal.
The notion that “everyone’s a winner” is well intended, but it misses an important life lesson. In sports and in business, even in life itself, competition breeds excellence while the absence of competition breeds mediocrity. Think about it: if there was no podium, if every slalom skier received the same Certificate of Participation, would the athletes put themselves out there on that final run as they do today? Would they give it all they’ve got and then some, or would they instead complete the final run in a defensive manner, just to keep from falling?
Competition breeds success. Competition teaches valuable life lessons. Avoiding competition to preserve self-esteem can actually damage self-esteem later in life for the individual who has never been taught to compete. I’ve seen it – many people enter the workforce expecting to be handed a paycheck just for showing up, and looking at the boss as if she is from Mars when asked to do just a little bit more. After a short time on the job, the promotion is expected and they’re shocked when it’s given to someone else. They’ve not been taught to compete; they’ve not been taught to give their all. Don’t misunderstand me – competition is not a nasty thing, nor does it have to be mean-spirited. While teaching competition, we must also teach fair play, sportsmanship, and consideration. The competitor who masters those skills will find himself at the top of the podium and, later, at the helm of a successful career.
I didn’t get a trophy for playing peewee hockey. We were the worst team in the league; we didn’t earn a trophy. I did, however, learn some valuable lessons that I carry with me today. I learned what it means to be on a team that is striving for constant improvement. By watching my teammates, I learned to skate backwards, even able to change direction on the fly! I learned that those around me have something to offer and I can learn from them, just as I can learn from my coaches. And, when all that hard work paid off and we finally achieved that elusive victory, I learned what the joy of success feels like. I try to carry those lessons into my workplace each and every day.
As a society, let us not shun competition; let us teach it properly. If we embrace healthy competition, even at a very young age, our kids will learn where they are talented and where they are not. They will discover their skills, their likes, and their dislikes. They will learn to work with others to achieve a common goal and enjoy the success of having achieved it. If we embrace healthy competition in all phases of life, our kids and we will be more productive adults and our society will be better positioned for long-term prosperity and success.