I had a conversation the other day with three women, all mothers. When I walked into our school’s office, they were bemoaning our community’s shortage of parent volunteers to lead youth activities such as scouts and sports teams. I chimed in with how glad I was that my daughter (now nearly 20) had been more interested in performing arts than in team sports, since I was able to avoid transporting her to daily sports practice, weekends spent at children’s sports competitions, and the endless fundraising. I recalled that during my daughter’s few years on the community swim team, I was the only parent who took advantage of the half-empty pool to get some exercise. The other parents, mostly moms, sat out in the lobby during practice and chatted about the last fundraiser, the next fundraiser, and the schedule of meets. My daughter was a bit overweight at this time (age eight), and her doctor had suggested swimming as a healthy way to get some exercise. We went to swimming practice once a week, and did other activities on other days – music lessons near home, long walks with our dogs, bike rides, and so on. I didn’t want her schedule to be too regimented at such a young age – I mean, childhood is a time for exploration, yes? I just didn’t get the grim, dogged determination that these swim-team parents showed, spending hours in the swimming pool lobby while their kids swam, the spending their weekends driving all over Germany to meets. These were Americans, mind you – military families and the odd teacher family, like ours. I guess we were odd, because we just didn’t see the point of all this competition for such young children. We just wanted our daughter to get some exercise and improve her swimming skills – a good thing to have in case one ever falls into the water. Hey, it happens – and it’s good to be prepared.
Our years with the swim team were few. Not only were we not interested travelling across Germany and beyond for frequent swim meets throughout our daughter’s second and third-grade school years (a few, OK, but nearly every weekend from September through March?), we even refused to go along with Sundays spent fundraising on the base – offering instead to donate the amount she’d be expected to earn. The team leadership was horrified! Suffering through a Sunday of bagging purchases at the PX was an important character-builder, apparently. Well, we weren’t having it, and our wee daughter wasn’t too broken up about having to leave the team. It seems that some of her teammates had been pretty unkind whenever Coach wasn’t looking.
So, back to today’s discussion in the school office. I was astonished, but not surprised, at the other mothers’ acceptance of the demands on team parents. And I made a bold assertion: while I certainly can see that many valuable life lessons can be learned from team sports, kids can also get those same lessons about teamwork, hard work, quick thinking and perseverance through other activities, such as drama, the activity that I currently “coach.” We discussed what competitive team sports can teach our children: cooperation, team work, how to handle losing, and competition. They all agreed on this last point, that a drive to compete is important in life.
But is it? I left the conversation to get back to work, chuckling to myself at having stirred the pot a bit and having challenged some assumptions – I do enjoy doing that. And I was sincere when I said that kids can learn valuable lessons from team sports – but is a sense of competition really necessary, or even desirable, off the playing field? One of the mothers said, “Well, the drama kids have to compete for parts.” That’s true; there’s usually more than one budding actor who’d like the leading role. But once the roles have been assigned, the kids gel into a supportive, productive team. In fact, team doesn’t adequately express the closeness they develop; family would be a better word.
I reflected for the rest of the day about competition – what role does it play in my life? I’ve often said that I’m not a competitive person; in fact, competitive people get on my nerves. I’ve had some unpleasant encounters with men and women who made a conscious effort to “top” me in various endeavors. For example, I ran for exercise when I was younger, and those determined to run faster than me were disappointed by my lack of concern and refusal to compete. I just wanted to run the best race I could, hopefully a little faster than I had the last time, and I didn’t care who finished ahead of me. I’ve participated in many sorts of performing arts, but I was no “diva” – realizing that the good performance of my fellow actors and dancers reflected well on the whole cast or troupe. Perhaps my lack of competitive drive came from the fact that, in certain areas that mattered to me – school, acting, dancing, work – I had good skills and felt secure in my level of achievement. I really enjoy my time in the spotlight, but am then glad to step aside and applaud someone else’s performance. I mean, I don’t want to read only stories that I’ve written – I want to read lots of stories by many good writers. I don’t want to eat only food that I’ve cooked – I want to be invited to your house to sample your specialties and praise them lavishly. I don’t need to have the fanciest outfit, the biggest house, or the most electronic toys. How silly is that!
What I said to the other mamas back in the school office was, “You shouldn’t compare yourself to others. If you’re competing, it should only be with yourself, trying to improve your own performance.” And I believe that. When I related this story to my wonderful partner/boyfriend, he gently but firmly disagreed. He reminded me of how sheltered we are, as DoDDS teachers, in that we have lots of creative freedom on the job and do not have to compete to keep our positions. Of course, there’s no possibility of “moving up the ladder” either, unless we choose to become principals or other administrative types (no, thank you). D. worked in private industry for many years, both as a salesman and a manager, and competition was a part of his daily life. He’s also a life-long athlete and sports fan, and his explanations of the nature of competition often fell back onto examples from the world of college and professional sports – something that has very little relevance for me. Finally, he pointed out that men seem to be hard-wired for competition – no doubt that’s true for many, if not most males.
My job does not involve competition – just lots of creative work on my own, cooperative work with my students, and the occasional bit of collaborative work with my colleagues. I’m not in competition with other teachers – what a silly idea! My hobbies are not competitive. Oh, I might enter a writing competition, I suppose, and it would be wonderful to have my work acknowledged by established writers or by my peers, but writing isn’t really about competition. Travel, entertaining, fitness – these activities are geared toward improving my quality of life, not toward showing up anyone else.
So, in the end, I reject the idea that a sense of competition is a necessary ingredient of the good life. Overly competitive people are obnoxious, and far too concerned with external validation. I’m fabulous, and your fabulousness does not take away one iota of mine. Let’s all be fabulous together – there’s plenty of fabulous to go around.