September 11, 2013

When Winning is the Dominant Discourse

A hilarious post from the satirical CBC news show "This is That" made the rounds on social media late last week claiming that an Ontario Soccer Club had decided to eliminate the ball from soccer in an effort to curb competition. The article cites a pseudo spokesperson as saying:
"We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it's about using your imagination. If you imagine you're good at soccer, then, you are."
Facebook and twitter feeds exploded in response to the spoof with overwhelming criticism of ball-less soccer as the next initiative in attempting to eliminate competition from sport. What I found most worrisome however, was that it was not the idea of playing soccer without a ball that seemed to enrage so many - but that their children would be losing an opportunity to "win". Predominant criticisms were overwhelmingly arrogant, ego-centric and condescending. It seemed that most were not actually advocating for competition to remain in sport - just winning.

The response to this article made it clear that there is a very real issue in in youth sport, but that it is not competition. The issue is that we continue to let the delusion that it's not who we are but who we've beaten, gain prominence and priority in our every day lives. We teach our children believe that the goal is not be good at something, it's to be better than everyone else.

It has become reality for children to be indoctrinated early into our ever-increasing obsession with victory. Pop culture, school systems and social media work together to rank and categorize on a daily basis. Athletes in second place rarely get air time and when they do, interviewers brazenly allude to how obviously disappointed they must be with the outcome of their performance. To paraphrase legendary Cross-Country coach Joe Newton, "it's no wonder athletes are afraid to fail. Because every time you win the bar gets higher. People expect you to break a world record, every time you run." Although every athlete by sheer numbers will inevitably lose more than they win we don't acknowledge the struggle and we don't celebrate it. Children learn from too young an age that winning is the only thing and we don't do a good job of teaching them otherwise.

The real issue in youth sport has been clearly identified time and again as society's epidemic over-emphasis on winning at the expense of skill, effort, persistence and a love of sport. No sport organization is advocating for the abolishment of competition in sport, but rather for a re-definition and re-focus. The Canadian Long Term Athlete Development Model is the product of years of research acknowledging that early emphasis on winning competitions leads to disillusionment, frustration and burn-out. Not because competition is bad, but because we don't make it clear to children that failure is essential to learning and that victory is not always a measure of success.

A few years ago, Olympic medalist Duff Gibson interviewed speed skating athlete Kristina Groves about her motivation in training and how it evolved as she struggled to find success. Kristina reflects on the evolution in her goal setting, from being focused on ranking and who she had beaten, to something more powerful and much more relevant.
"I'd been basing how happy I was with my races on the number next to my name.. but I have no control over the number beside my name. All I can control is how I feel, what I focus on...  If I cross the line, shouldn't I know right away if it was a good race? "
"The funny thing about it is that now... I can remember standing on a podium and not giving a crap about the medal. But to this day, I can tell you exactly how I felt in that race. ...That's what I want in my races, and that's what leads to good performance." (3.48 min)

The shift away from an early emphasis on competition in sport comes from the determination to cultivate a love of sport that remains even when the outcome is less favourable. Sadness, disappointment and even frustration are inevitable with failure but should be balanced by the confidence and pride that comes from giving your best. It is the excellence of the opponent that makes victory truly great. Seth Godin wrote a poignant blog post last week about the Red Lantern prize for the last place finisher at the grueling Iditarod.
Failing to finish earns you nothing, of course. But for the one who sticks it out, who arrives hours late, there's the respect that comes from finding the strength to make it, even when all seems helpless.
At the end of his post, Godin asks that we seriously reconsider what we choose to acknowledge and how. Do we want a future generation who define their success by how many people they've beaten or should it be something deeper and more personal and much more worthwhile.

For more food for thought, watch this video:

read this article: What Parents Should Say as Kids Perform 

or this one from Olympic Gold Medalist Kyle ShewfeltPerformance vs. Outcome Based Success

and check out this organization: True Sport Canada

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