Monday, February 18, 2008

De-emphasizing competition

"SI" asked how we handle competition at home, and how it is handled at the aikido dojo. By way of background I should say that I'm very similar to Noah in my attitude to competition. I don't like how it makes me feel. I get anxious about doing well, but if I do well, I feel guilty for out-performing others and unworthy of whatever recognition I get. If I do badly I feel like a failure. My preferred outcome, which I do my best to engineer, is to come in at about the 75th percentile. But I'd far rather just not compete. I have strong philosophical reasons for preferring to de-emphasize competition as well, but I'll not get into those here. This post is mostly about the "how," not the "why."

At home I've strongly de-emphasized all sorts of comparisons between children. Because my kids haven't been in school, with its age-levelling and lop-sided adult-child ratio, I've been remarkably successful. My kids don't try to bolster their own feelings of worth by comparing themselves favourably with siblings or others. They don't brag about being fastest or tallest or smartest or best. They are what they are, and they get satisfaction from, and brag about their own work and progress within themselves.

That's not to say that we never race, or compete, or compare. Games and challenges are fun. But it's always the game, and not the end result, that is the focus. To give an example, if I were to sit down and play Snakes & Ladders with Fiona, we'd start out rolling the dice and moving. If the game got lop-sided we'd laugh over how far ahead one of us was. I might quip "hey, this is no good ... look how far ahead I am! If my next roll is good, I'll give it to you." And I'd do that a couple of times. And then once one of us won a close race to the finish, I'd say "Aw, too bad, game's over. Hey, I know! How about we both play for me until my guy finishes too?" And then "yay, we did it!"

When we're at the gym playing badminton, we just rally. If there's not enough challenge for someone, we'll play two on one, or one of us will "play mean" for a bit which means trying to play so that the other person misses -- always resulting in big laughs. If we play two on two, we'll reshuffle the teams over and over, and if someone is clearly a much stronger player, we'll play two or three or four on one. Play can get really aggressive and exhausting, but we never keep score, because what would that add? We're having fun and working hard, improving our skills without it.

Violin group class is a place where competitiveness could very easily arise, since it's comprised of 14 students learning the same repertoire in the same order over the long-term (much like kids work through the same colour-belt levels in martial arts). But we consistently de-emphasize comparative language, and specifically encourage supportive feelings and comments. For instance, we never ask the students to share what their most advanced piece is. Instead they're encouraged to share what basic technique they're refining ("who has been working on bow direction in your lessons recently" will result in hands of kids from age 5 to 15, Books 1 to 10 going up). More advanced students are encouraged to learn from less advanced students, for instance by commenting positively on notable facets of a beginner's performance. Students are encouraged to focus not on speed of advancement through the repertoire, but on continually refining basic form and sound. Advancement through repertoire is the side benefit of refinement of technique, form and sound. In lessons students will often hear comments like "Remember, you're trying to learn to play the violin more and more beautifully, not to play 'Gavotte in g minor'. Learning this piece is just one of the steps that will help you develop your musical skills."

The approach at aikido seems very consistent with this. Students at various levels are in the same class and are learning from each other -- less advanced from more advanced, and vice versa. When a beginner is paired up with an orange belt for some technique, the children say to each other (in Japanese) "please help me learn." Of course the students are at different levels, and no one is pretending otherwise, but it's clear that everyone has things they can learn from everyone.

Some nuts and bolts examples. When they play tag as a warm-up, it's a cumulative freeze-tag version, with the frozen players helping the person who is "the shark" catch the remainder. When everyone is frozen, a new shark is chosen and play resumes. It very fun and a good challenge for all levels, but there's no winner and no score, and those who are tagged early still have a role to play in the game -- they're not "out."

When they do a race, they create relay teams, and the teams are totally arbitrary, and often unbalanced. The idea is to have fun by working together for a fast speed, and the kids are motivated and fast. They run their legs off! But if one team is clearly way ahead, the sensei will yell out "okay, Ryan's gotta do three laps instead of two -- one more lap Ryan!" And when the final runners come in, there's no victory dance, just a casual "okay that time Team 2 got it" followed by a quick reshuffling of the teams for another similar race with some slight variation.

When they play one-on-one games, like a neat sumo-ish game that's popular with the kids, the pairings are often lop-sided and some players will be handicapped (via directions from the sensei that seem casual and arbitrary, but I suspect are far from it) for certain matches by being asked to use only one arm, or no arms. I think that the sensei is ensuring through these pairings that all kids win and lose with regularity. The players must thank each other for the match, and there is no chance to gloat over a victory because the focus will already have moved on to something else by the time the thank-you has occurred.

The values and principles that run throughout these different activities are similar. Comparative language is strongly discouraged. Game play is the focus, with the winning or losing being beside the point. Reshuffling of teams and opponents and the frequent use of handicaps, flexible/shifting rules and collaborative play prevents kids from getting attached to outcomes and keeps the focus on the fun of the game. Scores and ranks are not kept track of. Situations where one student is repeatedly left out or defeated are avoided -- games being engineered so that all children have regular experience with both winning and losing and come to understand that this sort of 'success' or 'failure' is pretty meaningless. And focus is instead put on respect, responsibility, dedicated effort and mutual support.


  1. Great post Miranda. I learn so much from your blog and am in awe of your intuitive parenting. I am a school teacher and really dislike teaching P.E. because of the competitive aspect. One of my challenges is to create a P.E. program that is less focused on competitiveness and more focused on fun, fitness, and skill development. You have put forth some great ideas. Thank you!

  2. I agree on modelling the joy of an act over competing or winning. It is especially important for me, as I have two same-age kids at home who have similar interests. One thing we have done is to help minimize competition between them is to focus on the act of cheering for each other. They have SUCH good fun cheering and being happy for each other's accomplishments.


This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.