Oct 13 / Simcha

Competing Views on Competition (M. Richtel)

Competitiveness.  Hmmmm…  Given my particular temperament, I am inclined to feel uncomfortable even when an Olympics athlete “wins” for having completed the race a fraction of a second before another.  My inclination, too, would be to view competition as neither helpful nor constructive in promoting happiness and excellence, and to insist that it sidesteps the natural joy of non-measured, non-compared accomplishment.   And yet….

And yet, studies show that that competition is necessary, ingrained and essential, and that, under certain conditions, can improve performance and happiness.   According to hundreds of research papers on the subject of competition and performance to be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, competition sometimes enhances performance and sometimes does not.

To make some order in the confusion, Matt Richtel, in a recent New York Times article (The Competing Views on Competition, 10.08.12), highlights the nuanced suggestions of a few researchers who acknowledge the inescapability of competition.


John Tauer, professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., studies competition and coaches the men’s basketball team: “You don’t get away from competition unless you go to a system where everybody gets to do what they want whenever they want.”

The combination of cooperation and competition result in greater satisfaction and often in higher scores as well.  “Kids prefer the combination of competition and cooperation. It’s a significant increase in enjoyment….  One of the biggest culprits in psychology is wanting kids to feel good all the time; trying to avoid competition is making it bigger than it needs to be.”


Tennis champion Erik van Dillen was, as a teenager in the late 1960s, the best player in the country.  He went on to win the Davis Cup in 1972, as Stan Smith’s doubles partner, and beat a young John McEnroe at Wimbledon. He is also a father of five and someone who thinks a lot about parenting.

According to van Dillen, the emphasis on competition somewhat misses the point — even at the level of champions. The greatest players he has known and played against, he said, are problem solvers. When they play against other greats, they relish the challenge of solving a difficult problem. Winning or losing is simply a measure of whether or not they have solved the problem.

He has watched them carry those same problem-solving skills into the rest of their lives, and he hasn’t noticed any diminished sense of self-esteem when they lose or any heightened sense of self when they win.


David Johnson, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, has done pioneering work on the conditions that make competition enjoyable and enhance performance.

He suggests one way to change the culture around winning: Have your child encourage other children. Urge him to recognize excellence and effort in others and to give shout-outs when he sees them.  This, he says, will foster a spirit of cooperation even in the midst of competition. And when he loses, as he inevitably will, he will receive encouragement in return. By taking the emphasis off winning and putting it on mastery, the individual and the team — classroom, country, world — will grow in the process.