Whenever children participate in activities, including unsupervised play or organized non-competitive activities, they acquire skills through socialization. This is also true of participation in organized activities which do not have an explicitly competitive element, as I have argued before. But many activities that were previously non-competitive have been transformed from environments that only emphasized learning skills, personal growth, and simple fun, into competitive cauldrons in which only a few succeed—those who learn the skills necessary to compete and to win. According to their parents and teachers, kids can learn particular lessons from participation in competitive activities apart from normal childhood play.
Yesterday The New York Times ran an article about kids learning how to play bridge, and then competing in bridge tournaments. The article draws many comparisons between bridge and chess, given that they are both mental games (the major difference between the two highlighted in the piece is that bridge adds a more social, team element, as players have to play together to win). But whether we think about chess, bridge, sports, dance, music, or other childhood activities, we see many similar trends– like trophies and titles (the Times article specifically mentions a nine-year-old boy who recently became the youngest bridge life master). Most important, we see adults focused on developing similar skills in kids through their participation in these competitive activities.
In my research on competitive activities for elementary school-age kids I focused on three case study activities. Children’s competitive activities can be classified into one of the following types– athletic, artistic, or academic– and I had one of each– soccer, dance, and chess. Based on sixteen months of observation and 172 interviews with parents, teachers and coaches, and kids themselves, I label the lessons and skills children gain from participating in competitive activities competitive kid capital. The character associated with this competitive kid capital that parents want their children to develop is based on the acquisition of five skills and lessons: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win the future, learning how to perform with time limits, learning how to perform in stressful situations, and being able to perform under the gaze of others.
Internalizing the importance of winning is a primary goal when acquiring competitive kid capital. One parent told me: I think it’s important for him to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.
Competitive children’s activities reinforce winning, often at the expense of anything else, by awarding trophies and other prizes. Such an attitude seems to bring success in winner-take-all settings like the school system. Though many activities do award participation trophies, especially to younger children, the focus remains on who wins the biggest trophy and most important title. and some labor markets.
Linked to learning the importance of victory is learning from a loss to win in the future, a second component of competitive kid capital. This skill involves perseverance and focus; the emphasis is on how to bounce back from a loss to win the next time. A mom explained: The winning and losing is phenomenal. I wish it was something that I learned because life is really bumpy. You’re not going to win all the time and you have to be able to reach inside and come back. Come back and start fresh and they are able to. I’m not saying he doesn’t cry once in a while. But it’s really such a fantastic skill.
Because competitive activities belong to organizations that keep records, the stakes are higher than in recreational leagues and children can see that it matters that there is a record of success. These competitive activities in childhood then also help kids learn how to recover from public failures, and how to apply themselves and work hard, in order to be long-term winners. Kids learn the identity of being a winner only through suffering a loss. This father summarizes the sentiment, trying to raise a son to be a winner in life: This is what I’m trying to get him to see: that he’s not going to always win. And then from a competitive point of view, with him it’s like I want him to see that life is, in certain circumstances, about winning and losing. And do you want to be a winner or do you want to be a loser? You want to be a winner! There’s a certain lifestyle that you have to lead to be a winner, and it requires this, this, this and this. And if you do this, this, this and this, more than likely you’ll have a successful outcome.
Learning how to succeed given time limits is a critical skill as well—one of the “this” things you have to do to be a winner, and a third element of competitive kid capital. There are time limits for games, tournaments, and routines—and the competition schedule is also demanding, cramming many events into a weekend or short week. On top of that children need to learn how to manage their own schedules, which they might have to do someday as busy consultants and CEOs. One boy, in an unintentionally funny, and prescient, comment about how busy his young life is and how busy his schedule will likely be as an adult told me that he thinks soccer helps him learn about: Dodging everything—like when we have to catch a train, and there are only a few more minutes, we have to run and dodge everyone. So, soccer teaches that.
Children also learn how to perform and compete in environments that require adaptation, a fourth part of the competitive kid capital recipe. These environments may be louder, more distracting, colder, hotter, larger or smaller than anticipated in preparations, but competitors, and especially winners, learn how to adapt. The adaptation requires focus on the part of children—to focus only on their performance and eventual success. The following quote by a mom of a fourth-grader links this to performing well on standardized tests: It’s that ability to keep your concentration focused, while there’s stuff going on around you. As you go into older age groups, where people are coming in and out, the ability to maintain that concentration, a connection with what’s going on, on the board in front of you, and still be functional in a room of people, it’s a big thing. I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school, and GREs. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting. Well that’s a skill, and it’s an ability to transfer that skill. It’s not just a chess skill. It’s a coping with your environment skill.
Finally, in this pressure-filled competitive environment children’s performances are judged and assessed in a very public setting by strangers—the fifth and final component to competitive kid capital. This dance mom explains: I think it definitely teaches you awareness of your body and gives you a definite different stance and confidence that you wouldn’t have. For example, you’re told to stand a certain way in ballet, which definitely helps down the road. When she has to go to a job interview, she’s going to stand up straight because she’s got ballet training; she’s not going to hunch and she’s going to have her chin up and have a more confident appearance. The fact that it is not easy to get up on a stage and perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people, strangers, and to know that you’re being judged besides, definitely gives you a level of self-confidence that can be taken to other areas. So, again, if she has to be judged by a teacher or when she’s applying for a job she’ll have more of that confidence.
Children are ranked, both in relation to others’ performance in a particular competition, and in relation to participants their age. These appraisals are public and often face-to-face, as opposed to standardized tests which take place anonymously and privately. Being able to perform under the gaze of others toughens a child to shield his feelings of disappointment or elation, to present themselves as competent and confident competitors.
While all of the parents I met believe their children need to develop this competitive kid capital to succeed later in life, most were also concerned that their kids lack free time to play, or to “just be kids.” What is remarkable is that despite often deep ambivalence, families keep their children involved in competitive activities. Even when the specific activity may change (for example, a child leaves soccer for lacrosse, or gymnastics for dance), children remain actively engaged in competition and in their afterschool activities. Parents want to ensure they are giving their child every possible opportunity to succeed in the future in an often unpredictable world. These actions make sense to them now, though the later transition to success is not guaranteed, so they are hedging their bets by encouraging their children to acquire and stockpile this competitive capital– whether it be by participating in bridge, chess, soccer, dance, or other competitive athletic, artistic, or academic endeavors.
Do you value these skills for your kids? If so, how do you choose to impart them during childhood? I myself don’t know how to play bridge, but think it sounds interesting!