Many of us have an obsession with winning. The passion to be "number one" permeates our entire society. But winning is not the only thing; it's not even the most important thing. We need to recapture the true spirit of sports competition.
A lot of people today have become experts at winning, but they're only amateurs when it comes to losing. They know how to win with wild abandon; they don't know how to lose with quiet dignity. There was a time when only sore losers were scorned as poor sports. Nowadays, losing itself often occasions ridicule and abuse. For example, in America, land of opportunity, unless you're on top, you're nowhere. The only winning number is number one. This same obsession with victory has leached the fun of competition out of sports spectacles around the world. When soccer games escalate into brushfire wars and Olympic competitions turn into propaganda devices, it's obvious the healthy urge to win has grown into a pathological obsession.
The Sports Fan's Bible
The 1977 Guinness Book of World Records gets it all together. This sports fan's bible bulges with accounts of the highest, the biggest, the fastest, the greatest, and the strongest in human sports achievement. The most stupendous chronicle of human and superhuman endeavor in history, boast the publishers. "It's got all the answers." Trouble is, the questions may not be worth asking. But sports fans need not wait for their annual orgy of record breakers. They can gorge themselves on the daily sports page as one season merges into another. Newspapers blazon the good news, with copywriters outdoing themselves in forging hard-hitting headlines: "Yanks Blast Sox"; "Leeds Swamps Norwich"; "Knicks Bombard Bullets"; "England's Power Pack Crushes Scots"; "Jets Slay Lions." Are these sports results or war bulletins? While we heap honors on our winning athletes, rewarding them with fortune, fame, and frequently favorable press notices, we exact a terrible price from the losers. To the victors belong the spoils. That's the tradition. And to the vanquished? The ashes of defeat, the ignominy of not winning. Where in our games of noisy desperation can we find the spirit of once friendly competition? Where in our abrasive system does the exercise of skill, the discipline of teamwork, and the victory over self gain rightful recognition? Sports today demands winners, not just competitors.
Playing for Blood
The pros now play a brand of ball devoid of the friendly rivalry of earlier eras. They play for blood. What's wrong with our values that they compel us to win at any price? When rampant team jingoism, violence, and vindictiveness dominate our pastimes, maybe it's time to throw in the towel. With games gone sour, we should end the grim charade by blowing the whistle on them. Kids used to have the right idea: quit playing when it's no longer fun. It's bad enough that adult athletes must suffer the disgrace heaped upon them in a losing cause. How unconscionable that we inflict such pain upon our children! Terry Orlick, author and play psychologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, details the fallout from our compulsive competitiveness: "[Children's sports] have often resulted in excessive competition, exploitation, frustration, destructive aggression, distress, feelings of failure, restricted participation, and outright rejection. Much of North American life, including games and sport, involves competition aimed at proving one's superiority over something or someone, rather than upon the improvement of our physical, social, and psychological state of being." Contrary to popular belief, such values are not shared as part of the human tradition. John M. Roberts, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied the patterns of games in 186 separate societies throughout the world. "Games with winners and losers are not culturally universal," he concludes. Ethnographers even consider such study too trivial for anthropological research, claims Roberts. Yet in our Western world, sports have become a proving ground for masculinity, sometimes an obsessive way of life for those who can't cut it elsewhere. The image of the over-the-hill jock who refuses to retire his old uniform is more fact than fiction. In some instances, sports have been credited with a nation's survival. Didn't the Duke of Wellington boast that the English victory at Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton? Certainly in America, winning is the name of the game. Alex Wheaden, a national fencing champion in the under 16 class, tells why: "I love winning medals and I like to see people see me getting awards." That's a normal enough reaction, except for the fact that every winning performance produces disillusioned losers who blame themselves for failing. The toll in human health and happiness is devastating. "Uptight children are being raised by uptight parents who even direct the children's recreational activities into uptight games," complains Norman Whitney. Because such stressful activity inevitably leads to high blood pressure, adds Whitney, it's almost a certainty that these over-programmed youngsters will develop clogged arteries later in life.
Stressful competition in the classroom, a counterpart of uptight games, is ruining the health of countless students. "I get kids in third and fourth grades with ulcers, colitis, and psychosomatic illnesses of other kinds," states Dr. R.A. McGuigan, former medical director of the Evanston, Illinois, public schools for 25 years. "One youngster of seven, a second grader, had ulcers." His comments were occasioned by the drug suicide of a 14year-old boy, seemingly despondent over his poor academic progress. "The tremendous emphasis placed on winning is a significant characteristic of American culture today," says psychiatrist Dr. Louis Joslyn West. "Schools, clubs, YMCAs, business concerns — all are obsessed with producing or sponsoring winning teams. An inordinate emphasis on championships can easily lead to the neglect of the average performer whose life and health could nevertheless be greatly enriched by regular participation in sports."
Obsession with Winning
Commenting on Dr. West's statements, author Jack Griffin writes: "There is no evil, of course, in winning. There is great value in competition, if the values are properly scaled... In demanding only victory, we are unable to live with defeat, and it can be crushing. It can also leave a long and terrible scar... In our obsession with victory, we do strange things to ourselves and our sports heroes. In our adulation, we raise them to heights above normal men. Then we turn on them savagely when we discover that they are as mortal as we are and made of the same clay." The evidence of our savagery is played out daily on sports fields around the world. We cheer the athlete raucously one moment for his fabulous feats, then we boo him mercilessly the next when he falters. How capriciously loyal followers substitute goat horns for the halo. The staunchest of egos is bound to crack under such Jekyll-Hyde abuse. Violence at the ball park is not confined to the playing field. When fans turn ugly, verbal abuse is sometimes supplemented with objects hurled from the stands. Frequently, warfare breaks out among hyped-up rooters at crucial contests, with the fighting spilling out into the streets. Bottle-throwing, beatings, stabbings, shootings, even homicides, have resulted from fan-incited riots. If winning fever continues to rage unchecked through amateur and professional sports, many arenas may become like the ancient Roman Coliseum — bloody monuments to senseless contests. At best, these travesties of competition are Pyrrhic victories. Is winning worth it?
Winning — the Only Thing?
How can sports deepen character growth and moral development when winning becomes, in the words of the late American football coach Vince Lombardi, "not the most important thing, but the only thing"? Can you imagine one of our superstars kneeling in the locker room before a game and intoning Berton Brayley's "Prayer of a Sportsman"? "If I should lose, let me stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by!" The win-at-all-costs philosophy perpetuates a system of violent, unsportsmanlike competition. How much healthier is the value system of one of the winningest college football coaches in the U.S. today: "I tell my players that winning is not the most important thing," says Penn State's Joe Paterno. "Being ready for the challenge of competition and giving it your best shot is what it's all about." To counter the win-at-all-costs attitude, perhaps we should stress the value of "cooperative" games for youth. Terry Orlick and Cal Botterill have written a book, Every Kid Can Win, which urges just that. After critically examining the problems of kids' sports, they conclude that "the intrusion of misplaced values has created the mess." Give sports back to the kids, they urge. Sports are not worthy of the worship often bestowed on them. Let's not forget that they were devised by mere mortals like ourselves. "The only thing sacred about them," claims Orlick, "is that they have been around a long time. Their originators probably never thought about behavioral objectives." While socialization has long been one of the stated aims of sports and recreation programs, little has been done, he says, to structure activity environments to accomplish this. While pursuing research. Orlick introduced kids to "cooperative" games and noticed "a dramatic change in cooperative social interaction." P. G. Zimbardo, in his article "The Social Disease of Shyness," states that social isolation is a pervasive problem in North America. Such isolation derives from cultural norms which overemphasize competition, individual success, and personal responsibility for failure. The most effective therapy, he suggests, may be to understand and change our cultural values.
Cooperation vs. Competition
Cooperation is critical for the survival of our species. As society grows increasingly complex and competitive, cooperating with others and deriving rejuvenating fun from our pastimes will become more important. Games and sports are the means we must use then. "Where else can a child become so immersed in something so joyous and yet learn something so valuable about himself and others?" asks Orlick. "Opportunities for cooperative social interaction, self-acceptance, and sheer fun must be nurtured rather than destroyed in the games children play. Those of us concerned with overall quality of life, and more specifically with children's mental health, must work together so that confident, cooperative, carefree, jubilant children do not become an endangered species." Brian Sutton-Smith, a developmental psychologist and children's play authority, sees global implications in the games people play. "Survival of our civilization," he says, "may well depend on the leadership of more and more people with a more highly developed sense of play." We can put competition into perspective if we remember that it's not what Johnny does to the ball that counts. Rather, it's what the ball does to Johnny. The game must never be allowed to become more important than the player. Winning is not the only thing. Yes, Johnny does need to win. But he needs to win more than medals and trophies — more than doting and fawning on the part of coaches, parents, and peers. Johnny needs somehow to win self-confidence and self-respect. He deserves warm acceptance for having done his best, no matter what the scoreboard reads. Every Johnny must become a winner. He can if he gets guidance and good examples from caring adults — adults who can teach him to lose without bitterness and to win with grace and compassion.
Edward R. Walsh is director of recreation for Westbury Village, New York, where he also teaches and writes.