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Coping with competition

Paul Andersen

At a sports seminar in Aspen two weeks ago, a former professional athlete described his disappointment with competitive sports for children. He said that parents and coaches often thrust young children into competition as a way of meeting their own needs.

Now that the youth soccer season has finally wound down, it’s a good time to assess the competitive aspects of team sports. As a relatively new soccer dad, the fall season proved both enlightening and emotional as the thrill of competition gripped the Andersen household.

It didn’t start out that way. At first, I was a reluctant soccer dad, not exactly fitting the demographic of a sideline cheering section. My prejudice against organized team sports made the logistics of getting my son to and from practices a grim duty.

The first game changed all that. I loved it and became my son’s biggest supporter. I morphed into a soccer dad who eagerly awaited Saturday mornings. I even got teary-eyed when our guys scored. Something about the team experience moved me.

It’s difficult to explain to non-soccer parents how gripping it is to watch your child’s team score a goal in a hard-fought game. In my case, watching these fifth-graders playing their hearts out is touching.

It isn’t just the goals they score or the wins they earn, it is their focus and determination. These kids truly love the game, and they give it everything they have.

Last year, when I reluctantly attended my first soccer game, I had no idea of how to behave. I got caught up in the spirit and cheered my son from the sidelines as he worked the defense: “Trip him up! Trip him up!” I shouted.

I was politely informed later that tripping is a foul and that parents are advised to keep their mouths shut. From them on, I was a silent but enthusiastic spectator whose stomach twisted with every offensive and defensive action.

That’s when I realized how contagious competition can be. I also began to see the downside. Beyond the game, I equated competition with traits like strident nationalism, cutthroat capitalism and Machiavellian foreign policy. I intellectualized my son’s soccer season into a biting social commentary on humanity.

“Teaching children how to compete is like preparing them for the corporate boardroom,” I complained to my wife after our son’s team had suffered a decisive loss. “It’s all about winning!”

My wife turned to me with a knowing glance. “It’s also about playing as a team,” she said.

But I was on a roll. “Winning is what America is all about,” I ranted. “America dominates the global economy. We dominate militarily. We aren’t team players in our relations with the rest of the world. It’s us against them. The advantage is ours and we use it ruthlessly. There is no fairness.”

The next week, my son’s team won, and they worked for it, earning it with a scrappy and admirable persistence. Suddenly, I was on the winning side and I was elated. Then I saw the long, sad faces of the losing team.

For every winner, there has to be a loser. Duh! That’s Darwinian logic. But it’s not a conclusion that I can easily accept, especially when projected on the world stage. It became apparent with soccer, as with other things, that when one loses, we all lose.

After every soccer game, tradition calls for the two teams to come together and slap hands as a symbol of good sportsmanship. The players, parents and coaches honor the communal celebration of the game.

That ceremony gives me hope that competition is only part of the experience, that the us-against-them, I’m-better-than-you mind-set can end after the final whistle. It gives me hope that competition can somehow translate into cooperation.

Paul Andersen wonders if we will ever hear the final whistle on the world playing field. His column appears on Mondays.


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