Our 9 year old granddaughter Elsie is a gymnast. She had a gymnastics meet this past weekend, and did quite well. This was her first meet at Level 4, and we were all (her mother and I, to be exact!) nervous about how she would do. We should not have worried. Elsie received 4 medals! We were so proud. I would have been just as proud if she had come home without any medals. Or would I? At this meet I came face to face with competition, and I am not happy with what it taught me.
I have always prided myself on being non-competitive. And I am, as it relates to me. But I saw a different side of me at this gymnastics competition. I felt competitive for Elsie, wanting her to not be disappointed in her results. And her results were not hers alone, for how she scored had something to do with how the other gymnasts in her group scored. While it is true that in this sport you are competing against yourself, hoping to improve your score in each routine, you are also competing against the other gymnasts in your group, for medals are awarded for those scoring highest in each routine, and awards are given for #s 1-6 in most of the routines, and at least medals for those scoring #s 1-3. Those gymnasts who score within those numbers are awarded a medal. Elsie received 4 medals.
During the routines, I found myself relieved when Elsie had completed her turn, and had not fallen, and/or had an obvious mistake. I was also happy when she scored above 8, knowing that she needed to have at least an 8 in each routine to score at least 32 for the event, which is the magic number needed to qualify for the state competition. (Actually, a 32 in two separate meets is needed, and this was the first of three meets for Elsie.) Once that hurdle was met, my mind then turned to how the other gymnasts were doing, wondering how Elsie’s scores compared to theirs. I am embarrassed to admit that I was somewhat relieved when I saw someone score in the 7’s, thinking at least Elsie isn’t going to be last in the scoring! I was not glad that the ones who scored less than Elsie did so, other than it meant that she would not have the lowest score in her group! I did not think she needed to be the best, I just knew being the “worst” was not desirable!
All the while these thoughts were taking hold, I was also thinking about competition in general, and its negative results, of which I have seen many. Competition in the workplace is rampant, and I have observed it derail many people.
In working with clients, I have differentiated between competition against oneself, which relates to working to improve one’s own results, from competing against others. The first type of competition is the healthiest of the two. Yet most of our American society is geared to competing against others. If you need a current example, our political system gives us one. In all of the gibberish of from the candidates of both major parties, most of the airtime
is spent on how they are better than the other candidates, and that is expressed in very negative language about the other candidates. It is rare for any of the candidates to spend much time discussing their own strengths or their own platform. Most of the time is spent bashing the other candidates. Competition at its unhealthiest.
In many American workplaces we are conflicted about teamwork and competition, expecting them to co-exist and produce great results. While it is certainly true that competition between people in a group can produces great results, we should ask, “At what expense?” There are some people who thrive in a competitive environment, who push themselves harder to win, to be the best, at someone else’s expense, who can’t win unless someone one else loses. Then there are others who are demoralized in this type of an environment, who will never be able to do their best work when in direct competition against others. The best managers know how to navigate these differences. Unfortunately, we have too many managers who fail to navigate these differences.
At yesterday’s gymnastics meet, I came face to face with how early competition begins, and recognized how it is so ingrained in us before we become adults. It permeates every part of our society, so that we don’t even recognize it’s negative effects.
I want to delve into the research about competition, to better understand how to use competition between people to help individuals improve their own results; not to be the best of the group, but to be their own best self. For, isn’t that the best reward?