The Race to Nowhere (Insert Ominous Theme Music)

I recently enjoyed reading the following blog post – written by what seems to be a caring, intelligent, and thoughtful parent.

The post has generated various fanfare across the social media spectrum and for good reason. It is highlighting a fundamental problem with our societal view on athletics (and academics). The overarching story is becoming more and more common: Misguided parents push their kids to extremes for their own athletic/academic shortcomings to capture some delusional measurement of success for themselves. These parents and kids are then exploited by a self-proclaimed expert who simply feeds on the self-consumed – insecure – parent.

As articulated in the referenced post, the problem is little Johnny is NOT in competition with little Tommy anymore. Little Johnny’s DAD is in direct competition with little Tommy’s dad and the measuring stick of success is which son starts, makes the all-star team, and/or captures scholarship dollars in the face of an ever rising tuition environment. Since little Johnny is not playing sports for his own happiness; rather for his parents’ internalized success – pressure on Johnny to perform becomes suffocating. Johnny gets burnt out, resents his parents, and ends up psychologically damaged as he “fails” to live up to the success outlined by his parents/coaches.

The Fundamental Flaw

Unfortunately, the aforementioned blog post and above story are not an aberration; rather, Little Johnny’s parents embody the spirit of the current world of athletics and academia. However, the reasoning behind the problem and the solutions presented are as impeding to the development of youth today as the problems they are trying to solve. The more these solutions are promoted – the more dangerous they become.

The mainstream solution being promoted and advocated in the referenced blog post, is for parents to take a backseat approach, enable kids to play multiple sports, and ultimately – have fun playing sports in a stress free environment. Thus, competition is minimized and emphasis on specialization is devalued. These solutions are flawed at the most fundamental level.

Competition should not be minimized – it should be celebrated. True competition helps all student-athletes grow. Additionally, competition is the root of life. At the biological level – it enables survival. At the psychological level – it promotes self-awareness. At the social level – it facilitates confidence. Furthermore, specialization has been the foundation for biological, physical, socio-economical advancement. In terms of parenting and specialization, Laszlo Polgar proved the power of specialization. Polgar set out to create geniuses through the power of specialization. He raised three chess grand masters and the greatest female chess player of all time. Additionally, these girls were not “burnt out” nor do they live dysfunctional lives as all the Polgar daughters are said to be “relaxed, approachable and alarmingly well balanced.” Additional champions of specialization include Mozart and this fellow. Currently, 25% of minor baseball players are from the Dominican Republic. Are we to believe that kids born in the Dominican Republic are more athletically inclined to be elite baseball players than African Americans who constitute only 8% of baseball? Whether you wholly buy into Ericsson/Gladwell 10,000 hour rule or not; the simple fact is, players from the Dominican Republic would not constitute the large portion of professional baseball if they had not specialized and built up hours of deliberate practice on the streets/sandlots as very young kids. Similar specialization can be found in Brazil’s relative dominance in soccer .

The problem outlined above and in the referenced post is not competition or specialization. The problem is the misplaced focus on an end result. Polgar – as outlined in his book Bringing Up Genius! – set out to create genius chess players and focused on the process. He did not set out to create chess “winners.” Kids in the Dominican Republic do not focus on winning little league championships, they focus on hitting balls far and throwing balls hard. They make corrections when they fail; not pat themselves on the back when they receive false signals of “success.”

When we focus on an end result, the process becomes blurred. When all we care about is winning or losing, HOW we get to win or lose is no longer important. This problem transcends the athletic arena. In school, when grades are the only focus, learning concepts and consuming knowledge takes a back seat. In business, when short-term profits are emphasized, long term success is reduced as customer satisfaction and product development is weakened. Ultimately, this misplaced focus impedes growth and causes the problems outlined in the referenced blog post. Moreover, people resort to unethical and sometimes illegal activities due to this misplaced focus.
Misplaced focus on Athletics and Higher Education: UNC Academic Fraud
Misplaced focus on college entrance: SAT Cheating
Misplaced focus on youth sports: Danny Almonte Scandal
Misplaced focus on the profit model: Bad Businesses

Competition: The Process

Instead of focusing on winning and losing in the athletic arena or on subjectively based “good” grades in academia, we should focus on the process. Competition is the process. It is a process that focuses on getting better every practice, every game, every day. Winning, losing, good grades, or any other arbitrary measurement of success are all simply byproducts of this process. The results of the process are beneficial because they give us objective data to better assess ourselves. This is why “losing” – or errors and mistakes – isn’t a life shattering event. It helps us analyze our shortcomings and seek improvement. This is where true growth is derived from.

If we were to focus on the PROCESS of getting better; student-athletes, coaches, and parents would be better able to conduct self-assessments. Student-athletes could then focus on individual improvement and accountability for growth could be established – rather than accountability to win an arbitrary sporting event. We can then promote growth in ALL participants because the focus is on doing things better than you’ve ever done them – not “winning” or “losing.” Some student-athletes may never “win,” but by striving to do things better than they had done them before – they would witness exponential growth. Therefore, competition is not a cut-throat, win or lose, psychologically impairing endeavor that parents should avoid. It is an opportunity for all participants to develop true self-awareness and to continually grow – whether that growth is on the athletic field, in the classroom, or in a board room.

The Compete Academy was founded on the premise that competition enables all participants to develop skills that make them better people. Our philosophies are what guide us and what truly separates us. When the focus is squarely on the process, being successful – by any measurement (wins, grades, etc.) – is the byproduct. We don’t need less specialization or less competition, we need to focus on what specialization and true competition facilitates – growth.

Comments 2

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you about shifting the focus away from winning and losing. I used to play minor league baseball and gave private lessons after my pitching career was over. I remember a father bringing his 12-year old son in and telling me how big he is for his age and how hard he can throw and how he should be pitching for his team. As soon as we started our lesson, I realized that this kid COULD NOT throw a baseball. (At about 40 feet away, he was able throw one out of ten to me, and the rest went in various directions in the cage) Afterwards, I sat down with the father and son and laid out the only way I would work with them. 1) The dad was not allowed to tell me anything about how his son had played, that responsibility was on the young athlete 2) I was going to assign homework (practice reps, body control stuff, etc) for the athlete to be done daily 3) The dad was only allowed to remain at our scheduled lesson if he brought something else to do. (A book to read, etc)

    These rules took any expectation from the father out of the picture and put the responsibility solely on the player to get better for his own sake. And for the next 8 weeks, he learned, and failed, and failed again, and learned a bit more, and started seeing slight improvement, and then saw drastic improvement. This athlete will never play professional sports, or college sports, or probably even high level high-school sports. But, he learned how to learn, what it takes to find a weakness and improve it, and will be much happier in the long run for it.

    Oh, and the day of our last lesson, the kid came sprinting in to the facility screaming about how his coach put him in to pitch for an inning when they were losing 15-2 and he struck out two guys and then got high fives from all of his teammates and his coach said he never thought he’d be able to do that and etc, etc, etc. (He was talking too fast for me to understand half of what he was saying anyway. But I’ve never had anyone that I’ve coached be happier or more proud of himself than that. And he lost 15-2)

  2. If parents would allow their kids to fail, and then teach them what and how to learn from it…they would be doing their kids justice.

    When the parents constantly want their kids to “feel good” and bring home their trophy just for being there…they lose focus on what reality is and what makes sports such a great learning experience. Life is the toughest competition any of us face as adults and those of us that learned how to deal with adversity through our sports experiences have an advantage over those who didn’t. When competition can teach us how to lose, how to overcome mistakes, and how to react when we win…it is the purest form of a life lesson that there is. When the competition is taken out of the sport, you might as well be teaching the participants that you will always get what you want and that when you do have to deal with an issue or a problem, there is always someone else to blame.

    My children will learn how to win AND how to lose. They will learn that you have to work hard for success and that it is not just given to you. Entitlement is one of the major flaws of this young generation. The problem is too many parents think that unlimited success is what is best for their kids instead of the road it takes to get that success.

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