The Death of Competition

Competition drives civilization. While it’s really the ideas formed in the minds of our species greatest thinkers that advance civilization, it’s what is then done with those ground breaking ideas that sets the course humanity repeatedly embarks upon. To simply come up with a great idea and leave it just that, a brilliant thought rattling around the cerebral cortex, amounts to nothing. The idea must be made a reality and this means turning that idea into action be it the automobile or home computer. When the idea becomes reality it is introduced to the rest of the human species. In the case of the home computer, they were manufactured, sold to millions of consumers and then improved upon. Driving all of this was the idea of competition, one manufacturer creating a better model that would outsell those models introduced by other manufacturers. Sports is also the realm of competition, where individuals and teams compete to see who is the best in their given sport. In short, we are all touched by competition.

However, there has been a recent trend, when it comes to competition between children, whose aim is to remove competition from the equation, opting to create an environment within sports type endeavors in which everyone is a winner just for participating. This means, for example, that if your show up to an event in which traditionally, only the top three participants are rewarded for their performance, you’ll be rewarded for simply showing up and participating. It’s the parenting theory of “every child is special and should be rewarded just for that.” Some call it the “special snowflake” syndrome. This is where parents tell their children that they are special (which of course every child really is) and then steer those children away from a competitive environment. I really understand this point of view because we love our children and don’t want to see them suffer in any way, including their discovering that they’re just not good at something. I suspect some parents think that their child’s lives will become irreversibly damaged should they enter a competitive event and come in last. Again, I understand that you want to shield your child from the horrors of the world, but eventually they’re going to go out into the world and have to deal with competition. It’s everywhere and the sooner you prepare your child to deal with it, the better off they’ll be in the long run.

Everyone has something their good at and can take pride in. For some, it takes longer to find than others. When I was growing up, I was introduced to music and the arts in general. My parents didn’t have to keep me out of competitive sports because even I knew I’d be terrible at any sport (I really was). This is something parents need to understand. You’re children are a lot smarter than you think and intrinsically know their limitations. My parents greatly aided my dream of becoming a professional musician, knowing that it is one of the most competitive businesses around. They left dealing with the issue of competition to me, only making sure they’d be there if it all became too much for me to handle (a good way to approach this). I’ve been in this competitive business almost 40 years and it does require a tough outer layer of emotional skin to survive it. I, as you know, also teach and coach chess. I’ll never be the best chess player in the world (not even close) and I’m fine with that! Just because I’m not the best doesn’t mean I can’t pursue this game I love so much. As for guitar playing, I’m highly rated and very competitive, always aiming to out play the competition. This spurs me on to practice more than most players. I reap the rewards of such diligence. I mention these two things I do to make a point and that is: You don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy it, making it an important part of your life, and if you do find something your really good at, why not shoot for the stars (within reason). I think parents mistakenly steer their children away from chasing their dreams, which change with great regularity.

Children should be allowed to follow their dreams and be taught that there will be others who aspire to the same dream, thus creating an environment of, you guessed it, competition! When we try to avoid situations of competition in our child’s lives we shelter them from the inevitable, the plain and simple fact that life itself is competitive. Children eventually leave their mothers and fathers, setting out into a world that can be fierce and unforgiving. Better to be prepared than not.

I was at a chess tournament thrown by a school a while back and noticed that they had a huge number of trophy’s displayed on the stage. Upon asking why there were so many of them, I was informed that every child playing in the tournament would receive one simply for showing up. I felt a bit uneasy about this idea because some of my students were playing in that tournament and those students spent countless hours working on their game so they would have a chance at winning one of the normally coveted top place trophies. One of my students also found out that everyone was getting a trophy and while he was glad there wouldn’t be anyone going home empty handed, he felt slightly cheated because he had worked so hard to prepare for what was not really a straight forward competition. Do we need to reward everyone for simply showing up? Imagine if this idea of “everyone’s a winner” was applied to the competitive world of technological businesses. Would we see all of the rapidly developed technologies that have changed our lives for the better come about in such a lightning fast way? Would we see once expensive computers we use in our daily lives come down to an affordable cost. I suspect not because competition drives advances and affordability. Yes, you’re a winner for trying, for giving it a shot, but if you want to truly be the best at something, you have to compete against other like minded individuals who also want to be the best at something. The only way to determine one’s level of skill is by comparison, namely comparing your skill to the skills of others who share your interest in that endeavor. This is done, using chess as an example, by playing another person.

One of the tough things about competition and chess is that chess comes down to you and your brain against your opponent and his or her brain. You might say that it’s a battle of brains and when we lose, we tend to take it a bit personally. Is the person you just lost to smarter than you? Absolutely not but people think that chess skills go hand in hand with one’s IQ, meaning the better the chess player the smarter he or she is. Wrong! I’ve heard parents say that “wow, that little boy that won first place sure is smart.” Does this mean that the parent’s son that came in 19th place is less smart? Absolutely not! It means the little boy that won first place may have been playing longer or had better pattern recognition skills. You can’t take your child losing a chess tournament or any other competition as a sign there’s something wrong. You also can’t shield them from what they’re going to meet head on when they mature, competition. So what should you do?

Tell them that the very fact they tried counts for a lot and even if they don’t do well in this endeavor, there is something out there that they’ll be great at. The adventure for the child is finding that. Competition should not be avoided but embraced in a healthy way. I mention this because there are parents who, upon finding their child’s uber talent, become slave drivers who force their children to improve at all costs. Let the child develop the interest and if they’re really into it, they’ll put in the time. Accept competition. Now that you’ve suffered through my rant, I give you a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).