Watching the NCAA Track Championships last weekend, I witnessed an athlete win a title and position herself for an Olympic team berth. I'd coached an athlete who competed evenly against her. Many people have asked me why the young woman I coached did not take an athletic scholarship to compete beyond high school. She was done with sport competition and it was her decision to make. I thought a lot about competition and winning last weekend.
When kids hit elementary school, their world is broadened. They are introduced to a curriculum and teachers who'll become important adults, and they are exposed to classmates and peers. So begins the realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses in such things as reading, math, throwing a ball, running fast and popularity. So begins competition.
Competition gives a person an objective estimate of skills and can promote higher standards and stimulate completion of tasks. It can also instill the idea that success depends on the ability to defeat others — a capitalist notion. This sometimes leads to hostile relationships; the "slow" can lose incentive and inadequacies in academics, games and sports become apparent.
The importance of winning varies from child to child. For instance, some sixth grade students would rather get equal playing time on the basketball team where others would rather be on a winning team and play less. I asked my granddaughter if she would rather be the star of a losing team or just a contributing member of a winning team? I was surprised when she chose the latter because I would have wanted to be the star.
As a high school faculty member, I had many discussions around the concept of collaborative learning and group projects to help everyone feel successful, to take winning and losing out of the classroom. However, when practicing group collaboration, I often found resentment directed toward less productive students getting equal grades with others. It also led to "social loafing," where a person who is lazy in the workplace leads others to follow suit rather than feel taken advantage of. Still, overall, I believe taking competition out of the classroom is a healthy idea for education because the benefits of counting on others, friendships and working together toward a goal outweigh comparing grades.
I have never been a fan of the Red Sanders quote, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." This blood-and-guts mentality leaves nothing to learn. The quote is sometimes wrongly attributed to Vince Lombardi but, according to James Michener in is his classic Sports in America, Lombardi actually said, "Winning isn't everything but the will to win is." Many adages about winning revolve around the idea that the real winners respond to losing by trying even harder to win. This is a good concept, though overused.
Four-time Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair said, "Winning doesn't always mean being first. Winning means doing better than before." Having coached track and field, when a teenager came back after an event and said, "I jumped farther last time — I'm getting worse," I always explained the concept of a plateau and working through it. If you improved every time you competed, you'd break the world record after a while — run enough races and you'll finish before you start. I don't like the idea that you must constantly improve to be a winner, either.
When I was in grammar school, our principal and teacher Charlie Lakin gave us a talk about winning. He was a Humboldt County icon who overcame a tough childhood. He told us winners were people who tried their best in every aspect of life from academics to games to cooking a meal. He said that was the only right way to live. I liked this idea and it stuck with me.
As a coach, I have seen how strong the fear of losing can be. I once coached an athlete who won a state championship over superior athletes due to mental superiority and an almost unhealthy fear of losing. After the race he said, "I don't know what I would have done if I had lost." But what about the fear of winning?
The most prized book on my shelf is a signed copy of Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them, written by Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko in 1966. To many, it's a bible on the personalities of athletes. It is a timeless and exhaustive study on character and competition, geared primarily toward athletes in individual sports.
The chapter "Success Phobia" covers the conscious or unconscious fear of winning — a coach's nightmare. Billie Jean King acknowledged this issue when she said, "A champion is afraid of losing, everyone else is afraid of winning."
Tutko and Ogilvie's theory is that most athletes who exhibit fear of winning developed it over time. Often, the athlete competed from an early age whether they were personally ready for competition or not, becoming the medium for their parents' need to be fulfilled. To compete was to be loved.
The authors found individual personalities don't always fit the win at all costs philosophy. Some people feel they must lose occasionally to be accepted by their peers, the cost of always winning can be too high. In others, losing can also be a hostile reaction to a parent or coaching figure. Also sensing the deep feeling of losing, particularly on the others home turf, some may feel empathy to lose to protect their opponents' feelings.
Further, Tutko and Ogilvie concluded that "almost winning" can sometimes get the attention of a coach more than winning, as the winner does not need as much help.
I have another theory to add. The continued pressure to win, maybe since childhood, coming from teammates, parents, peers, coaches and schools can be too much. After a life of competition, not winning can give an athlete a reason to move on to a life without sport. Relief.
Longtime Dodgers sportscaster Vin Scully once said, "Losing feels worse than winning feels good." It's a shame the bad stays with you longer than the good but that's true in many walks of life. A loss can haunt you for a while but after a win its just back to life. Maybe learning to enjoy the victories more than we suffer the losses is what winning is.
Rod Kausen (he/him) is a retired teacher and coach.