Competition vs Cooperation: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!
Interviewer: What is it like to work in a group?
Justin (age 10): You have four brains
- From No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn
Competition. It’s everywhere. Playing a sport like soccer involves competition. It also involves cooperation. You need to be able to do both. If you’ve coached soccer then you know just how hard it can be to get youth teams to keep possession of the ball, a cooperative action.
Cooperating is hard. Competing seems much easier. I was curious about the definitions of competition and cooperation. Here’s what I found for cooperation:
1. Joint operation or action
2. Assistance or willingness to assist
3. (Ecology) beneficial but inessential interaction between two species in a community
I like the third one the best. And here are some for competition:
1. The act of competing, as for profit or prize; rivalry
2. A test of skill or ability; a contest
3. (Ecology) the simultaneous demand by two or more organisms for limited environmental resources such as nutrients, living space or light
Again, I like the third one the best. I find that the ecological definitions of the words competition and cooperation also apply best in the world of youth sport. Competition, the simultaneous demand for limited resources. Cooperation, beneficial but inessential. Maybe I am guilty of manipulating the words. It certainly feels to me like these definitions sum it up though.
Why? When we compete we do so for the opportunity to possess a limited quantity of something — like winning the contest, winning the tournament, winning the league. Many start the quest, only one wins. And the kids hit the nail on the head when they say that everyone else is a loser. I think because this shocks us we do our best to deflect that opinion. “Oh, that’s not true dear. It’s important that you try hard and do your best.” But they’ve got it, there can only be one winner. When competition is the driving force, cooperation is at best residual.
Just think about the language that we use to refer to the contest itself. Battle. Fight. Scrap. Opponents are for beating. They are obstacles to be overcome. They stand in your way of obtaining that limited resource. And so the adults involved steer their soldiers into battle in pursuit of that prize. And as often is the case with war, many of the soldiers are fighting a battle they did not ask or choose to fight. Unfortunately, they are out ranked by those very same adults.
I don’t think we fail to win because we fail to compete. We fail to win because we fail to cooperate. As the adults involved we need to remember that the standard view of competition turns it into a zero sum event. Only one of us can get what we want. Even though the rules involved make the contest a contest, we can still dial down the rivalry. At the end of the contest, if only one of us does win on the scoreboard, then there are still plenty of things that can be done during the game to try and share those limited resources. The adults can cooperate in many ways to ensure that players on both teams are developing. It starts with the coaches acknowledging each other before the warm-up even begins. Each needs to see the other and their team as an interesting challenge to solve and not a threat to be overcome.
We cannot change the nature of a competitive event so I think it is time we look at a new definition of the word ‘development.’ Here’s one for you: A pattern of resource use, that aims to meet human needs so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.
Did you figure out that this is a definition for sustainable development? If the resources available from competition are scarce then we as adults, the stewards of youth sport, should be doing what we can to inject more resources or, at the least, cooperate to share the limited resources that are available in order to ensure that development is done sustainably. If our goal is to see more kids playing sports like soccer through their teen years and beyond then competition alone, as the only focus, is not sustainable.