competition's failures

Ian Bogost wrote recently "in defense of competition," noting "There is a war on sport and on competition, waged in the name of equity and openness and participation." I agree. In fact, I may even take that defense further, or at least in a different direction. Bogost's defense is primarily in response to video game criticism, though his initial response is related to the Olympics. As he concludes

The problem with having winners and losers isn't that there are winners and losers. It's that we fail to respect and acknowledge all the different ways that victory and failure can play out while still taking seriously the specific conditions of a particular individual or group in relation to a particular sport, game, practice, or circumstance that can be won or lost…  Let us subject ourselves to the stupid caprice of structures and rules we didn't invent, for they are one of the best places to practice the contingency and folly of really real reality. Let us feel their weight as invitation rather than oppression. Those who do so in earnest are far more likely to have a perspective from which they can empathize with others, whose talents lie elsewhere.

The rejection of competition as a value is, in my experience, a widely-held view among academics, and there is certainly a sense more broadly in our culture of how competition has gone too far, particuarly in children's sports. Having two kids who play sports and having coached for several years, I have witnessed this. I have felt it; it's easy to get carried away. Because you want your kid to succeed and you become personally invested. It happens. It also happens in school. Kids are always competing with one another to get the top grades and honors. It also happens with music and art. But most of our cultural sense of inappropriate, hyper-competitiveness is attached to sports. 

The academic critique of competition is broader though. It is a critique of the idea that competition is part of "human nature," rather than being cultural and historical, and it is also part of the critique of the ideological belief that capitalism is a kind of natural state based on our naturally competitive behavior. This is also connected to the over-emphasis on the "survival of the fittest" theme in evolution, which would seem to turn all of nature into a competition. 

So in some ways this is a Latourian problem, where our modern split of nature and culture creates conceptual problems. Moreso though, the problem is that "competition" fails to capture the richness of affect going on here. That is, competition is this idea that we apply to certain behaviors in an attempt to explain them, and we may even attach ourselves to the concept, but it remains a limited perspective. In other words, competition fails to capture the breadth and depth of "competitive" experiences. 

Again, I'll have to turn to youth soccer as my example. My son just completed tryouts for premier soccer teams and made one of the "A" teams in the region. He's a very good soccer player, but there are other kids on his team that are at least as good as he. They are all 11, so it's anyone's guess really who will be the best players at 15 or 17. Soon there will be tryouts for the Olympic Development Program, which trains players with an eye toward the national teams (and there are a number of these teams: under 17, under 20, etc.), but they start the training much younger. I don't think anyone imagines that their kid will be playing for the US national team, and even if they did, we know there are plenty of other teams out there better than ours. What everyone knows, even my 11-year old son, is that there is always someone better than you out there. He wants to be a physicist when he grows up. If he has dreams of being a pro-athlete they are no more serious than any other such fantasies (to be a famous actor or rock star or whatever) that all kids might have. So maybe my son will end up getting a college soccer scholarship. Probably not. His (and our) focus is more on academic excellence (working hard to compete for an academic scholarship is more acceptable right?).

But playing soccer isn't an all or nothing proposition. He doesn't have to be "the best" or face total failure. On the other hand it isn't just about getting exercise and making friends either. But what is? Competition might be highlighted in a soccer match, but only because the win state is clearly defined. Our daily lives may not be so obviously punctuated but we can still turn the competition lens on our activities. Do I compete for grants, for university resources, for a raise or promotion, for a job, for space for my article in a journal, for space on a conference program, for students to take my classes, for your eyeballs here? Sure. I could think of my career as a series of competitions. I could try to keep score and see if I am ahead of the people I consider my peers, just as many people do now with facebook. But as we know from other aspects of our lives, the competitive element is just one small part of a larger experience. The same is true in sports.

Does losing the championship game in a soccer tournament suck? Yes, as it happens. So does not getting the grant you spent a month writing. But we don't need to be horrified by that feeling. Only the hyper-competitive need to stigmatize failure so deeply. Only one team gets to win in a tournament or league, and that team will almost certainly lose something else. We can allow ourselves to be upset in the moment. As the recent ESPN commercial jokingly puts it, winning wouldn't feel so good if losing didn't hurt so bad. But that's a joke folks. What competition teaches you more than anything is that failure is commonplace. It's ok. Realizing that doesn't make you a "loser" or give you a loser mentality. Instead it's a kind of resiliency. My son may not have a career as a soccer player, but if he does become a physicist then he will be in a hyper-competitive profession and there will be many failed experiments.

To succeed you have to be willing to risk failure, right? And to be perfectly honest, this is one of the greatest challenges the students I teach face: developing a willingness to risk failure. My son and his teammates practice very hard. They have claimed an interest. They have put a personal stake into soccer. They make sacrifices, even though they enjoy soccer too. They are putting themselves out there, exposing themselves, when they compete. They are taking a risk with the knowledge that they will almost certainly fail at some point (and in some ways the more you win, the more potentially painful that ultimate failure can be). But that's ok, because in the end the failure that is defined by the score at the end of the game is only part of the tally in a broader affective valuation of the experience. In fact, as an athlete the daily experience of sport is far more about the practice and routine than it is about the moment when the game ends and the score is finalized. In the same way, my career is more about the research, teaching, talking, writing etc. than it is about the moment I read the email that says whether or not I got published, etc.

I don't know why we can't manage to tune this attitude toward competition more effectively. Sure, it's asinine to get hyped up over an 11-year old's soccer tournament, whether you're the kid or the parent. But it's equally stupid to be so afraid of the trauma of losing that one isn't even willing to take a risk. I don't know if risk-taking is "natural" or "cultural" but it seems logically necessary to me at both individual and collective levels. 

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