I like sports well enough, even though I’m not a die-hard fan of any particular team (although I certainly have a Boston loyalty like a lot of Mainers- we used to occupy the same colony, you know). There are a lot of very valuable life lessons that we can learn through sports. I’ve outlined them at times in my blog. I even dabble in very amateur athletic pursuits myself.
However, I would like to point out that there is a very important way in which life is not like sports. In life, there are no clear winners and losers. In other words, life is not a contest in which you must defeat others in order to “win.” There is no scoreboard, point system, or panel of judges. Sure, there are competitions which utilize these devices, but that’s different than the pursuit of a life. The pursuit of a life is not a sport at all.
The problem is that many of us seem to operate as if life is a competitive sport where a winner will be named and a loser will be disgraced. I think this is a big problem when it comes to interpersonal relationships. For example, how many of us think about “winning” an argument? Or being “right?” This way of thinking is a huge barrier to having positive connections with others. The goal of our interactions needs to be solving problems and increasing understanding. How does it play out when we think not of these pursuits but instead of “winning”? We continue to get further disconnected.
At times I hear people talking about “sizing up the competition” when meeting new people. I always get a little confused. They are not usually referring to a starting line. Maybe they are at work or in a social setting. What is the competition? If we look at everyone as a competitor, or worse, an enemy, how do we make friends and build relationships?
It is painful and destructive when parents buy into the “life is one big competition” mentality. Many parents seem to fear that their kids will fundamentally “lose” at life. This plays out in youth sports every day all across the country. It is a common complaint that parents take it so seriously that it becomes no fun for kids. Many times, kids end up feeling bad about themselves as a result. I don’t think parents intend this outcome. I’m fairly convinced that they believe their kids must win in every way or else the dreaded outcome of “losing.” We have become deluded into thinking our kids must achieve or else bad things will happen. We forget that in acting out this philosophy we do serious harm to our relationship with them.
Last October there was a very good article titled The Power of Positive Coaching in the New York Times opinion section. The author, David Bornstein, talks about how positive coaching can transform youth sports into learning about life skills that are helpful and generalizable. Reading the article, I was struck by how the philosophies of focusing on effort, learning, and responding effectively to mistakes are the very skills parents also need to be emphasizing.
We can do much better than a win or lose framework for life. We really need to. Happiness is not in “winning,” it’s in being socially and emotionally connected. Connection, the outcome of having a positive relationship with ourselves and others, is the very thing that brings us a sense of purpose and belonging.