Fun & Fitness Without Competition

July/August 1990

Fun & Fitness Without Competition

By Alfie Kohn

I learned my first game at a birthday party.  You remember it:  X players scramble for X-minus-one chairs each time the music stops.  In every round a child is eliminated until at the end only one is left triumphantly seated while everyone else is standing on the sidelines, excluded from play, unhappy … losers.

That’s how we learn to have a good time in America.

Several years ago I wrote a book called No Contest, which, based on the findings of several hundred studies, argued that competition undermines self-esteem, poisons relationships, and holds us back from doing our best.  I was mostly interested in the win/lose arrangement that defines our workplaces and classrooms, but I found myself nagged by the following question:  If competition is so destructive and counterproductive during the week, why do we take for granted that it suddenly becomes benign and even desirable on the weekend?

This is a particularly unsettling line of inquiry for athletes or parents.  Most of us, after all, assume that competitive sports teach all sorts of useful lessons and, indeed, that games by definition must produce a winner and a loser.  But I’ve come to believe that recreation at its best does not require people to try to triumph over others.  Quite the contrary.

Terry Orlick, a sports psychologist at the University of Ottawa, took a look at musical chairs and proposed that we keep the basic format of removing chairs but change the goal; the point becomes to fit everyone on a diminishing number of seats.  At the end, a group of giggling children tries to figure out how to squish onto a single chair.  Everybody plays to the end; everybody has a good time.

Orlick and others have devised or collected hundreds of such games for children and adults alike.  The underlying theory is simple:  All games involve achieving a goal despite the presence of an obstacle, but nowhere is it written that the obstacle has to be someone else.  The idea can be for each person on the field to make a specified contribution to the goal, or for all the players to reach a certain score, or for everyone to work with her partners against a time limit.

Note the significance of an “opponent” becoming a “partner.”  The entire dynamic of the game shifts, and one’s attitude toward the other players changes with it.  Even the friendliest game of tennis can’t help but be affected by the game’s inherent structure, which demands that each person try to hit the ball where the other can’t get to it.  You may not be a malicious person, but to play tennis means that you must try to make the other person fail.

I’ve become convinced that not a single one of the advantages attributed to sports actually requires competition.  Running, climbing, biking, swimming, aerobics — all offer a fine work-out without any need to try to outdo someone else.  Some people point to the camaraderie that results from teamwork, but that’s precisely the benefit of cooperative activity, whose very essence is that everyone on the field is working together for a common goal.  By contrast, the distinguishing feature of team competition is that a given player works with, and is encouraged to feel warmly toward, only half of those present.  Worse, a we-versus-they dynamic is set up, which George Orwell once called “war minus the shooting.”

The dependence on sports to provide a sense of accomplishment or to test one’s wits is similarly misplaced.  One can aim instead at an objective standard (How far did I throw?  How many miles did we cover?) or attempt to do better than last week.  Such individual and group striving — like cooperative games – provides satisfaction and challenge without competition.

If large numbers of people insist that we can’t do without win/lose activities, the first question to ask is whether they’ve ever tasted the alternative.  When Orlick taught a group of children non-competitive games, two-thirds of the boys and all of the girls preferred them to the kind that require opponents.  If our culture’s idea of fun requires beating someone else, it may just be because we don’t know any other way.

It may also be because we overlook the psychological costs of competition.  Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it’s obvious why that causes self-doubt.  But even winning doesn’t build character:  It just lets us gloat temporarily.  Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition; your value is defined by what you’ve done and whom you’ve beaten.  The whole affair soon becomes a vicious circle:  the more you compete, the more you need to compete to feel good about yourself.  It’s like drinking salt water when you’re thirsty.  This process is bad enough for us; it’s a disaster for our children.

While this is going on, competition is having an equally toxic effect on our relationships.  By definition, not everyone can win a contest.  That means that each individual inevitably comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success.  Competition leads people to envy winners, to dismiss losers (there’s no nastier epithet in our language than “Loser!”), and to be suspicious of just about everyone.  Competition makes it difficult to regard others as potential friends or collaborators; even if you’re not my rival today, you could be tomorrow.

This is not to say that competitors will always detest one another.  But trying to outdo someone is not conducive to  trust — indeed it would be irrational to trust a person who gains from your failure.  At best, competition leads one to look at others through narrowed eyes; at worst, it invites outright aggression.

But no matter how many bad feelings erupt during competition, we have a marvelous talent for blaming the individuals rather than focusing on the structure of the game itself, a structure that makes my success depend on your failure.  Cheating may just represent the logical conclusion of this arrangement rather than an aberration.  And sportsmanship is nothing more than an artificial way to try to limit the damage of competition.  If we weren’t set against each other on the court or the track, we wouldn’t need to keep urging people to be good sports; they might well be working with each other in the first place.

As radical or surprising as it may sound, the problem isn’t just that we compete the wrong way or that we push winning on our children too early.  The problem is competition itself.  What we need to be teaching our daughters and sons is that it’s possible to have a good time — a better time — without turning the playing field into a battlefield.

Copyright © 1990 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. — © Alfie Kohn