Competition vs participation

It was no ordinary under-16 rugby match. By the time the referee had decided to stop play, blood was splattered on both players and spectators. Players from the two competing schools had fist fights; the spectators had brawls, too. Sunday newspapers reported the incident and told their readers that the principals of the two schools would be holding an urgent meeting.

That particular rugby match was an example of where competition had gone out of control.

What’s better for a school: competition or participation? Do we encourage intense competition among teams—especially against neighbouring schools—but not give due attention to encourage participation among learners in all activities? There’s an ongoing debate worldwide about competitive sports in schools.

Competition can involve negative behaviour such as lack of sportsmanship, verbally rubbishing the opposition and even physically assaulting others. Handled poorly, competition makes a person fear failing and lowers self-esteem if he or she loses.

Yet competition can also be healthy. It motivates learners to try even harder. Winning is a morale booster. Competitors further develop their skills. There’s also the sheer enjoyment and fun of taking part. Positive competition involves determined but, crucially important, friendly rivalry. Values such as perseverance, respect, being humble in victory and gracious in defeat are learnt.

When the competition involves teamwork, important life skills are taught. Everyone knows the team is more important than the individual. Together they can do so much more.

Participation brings people together. Many schools expect every child to participate in at least one cultural and/or sporting activity. New skills are learnt; new friendships made. There’s a sense of belonging in which everyone realises they’re part of one team, which is their school.

Learners should be guided to get a balance between competition and participation in their lives. John was a brilliant soccer player and the best striker in his school team. Besides never missing a school practice, John belonged to a soccer club. As the soccer team captain, he was an excellent motivator and led his team to a winning season.

Meet the same John in the English class and he’s not so competitive. Nor does he put in the extra effort needed. Yes, his homework is done diligently. He participates in class but, beyond what the teacher requires of him, little extra time is spent on the subject. John’s competitive passion for excellence is reserved for the soccer field.

A school needs to give opportunities for learners to take part in competitions. Make sure that there are opportunities to be competitive in all areas of school life. What about the academic stars who also want to compete academically or the budding talents who want to compete for the school Oscar for Best Actress?

Competition should be a mentally healthy experience. John Shindler in Transformative Classroom Management highlights possible student problems regarding competition in the classroom. Two of them are:

  • Fear of failure. Ask the learners whether they’re working from a desire to grow and learn or are they spending too much time worrying about their self-image. Remind them that they are playing for fun and what’s important is what they learn. Focus on the process, not the result.
    Shindler advises teachers not to make the learners compete for high “stakes”. Let the winners’ prize be a small or trivial one. Give due praise, the “five minutes of glory” and then move on to something else. Let the learners be aware that the teacher cares about every one of them and wants them all to do well.

  • Too much focus on the outcome of winning. Here, the teacher must remind learners that what’s important is to understand what’s being taught and also how they treat each other. Winning won’t improve their marks or report card symbols.
    The teacher expects them to compete in a spirit of cooperation, respect, fairness and sportsmanship. If a group falls apart emotionally by blaming other team members, or cheating, there should be consequences. A most powerful consequence is that the group has to sit out from taking part.

Although a learner might only want to participate and not compete in an activity, the learner should be encouraged to set personal competitive goals. John, the soccer player mentioned here, was given such a challenge by his English teacher. She challenged him to improve his English mark for the next term. “Compete against yourself, John. By how many marks can you improve for the next report?” was her motivation.

Shindler gives an astute observation about competition: winning is not the point and losing is not a big deal. What is meaningful is what we learn about ourselves in the process, how we treat each other, and what we learn about our skill level.

So, what’s better, competition or participation? Both have a hugely positive effect on any excellent school. Use both wisely. Then you’ll bring out the innate best in any young person.

Richard Hayward is a former headmaster. He is attached to the Quality in Education unit of the South African Quality Institute



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