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Circle Game
January 1999 Article

Contact to Greg Moran

Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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Circle Game By Greg Moran


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Greg Moran

These words, spoken by legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, have became an apt description of our culture's primary passion--- winning.

We are a world obsessed with winning. Be it on the athletic field, in the classroom, the boardroom, the neighborhood or even in the home, winning is our top priority and the so called "super-winners" in society are our heros.

We canonize "winners" or "achievers" in the business world such as Donald Trump and Bill Gates, and idolize mega-winners on the athletic field such as Pete Sampras and Mark McGuire.

Our addiction to achievement has bred a very, some say overly, competitive society. We are conditioned to compete from the moment we are born. We vie for our parents attention, for friends, grades, sports, colleges, boy friends or girl friends and later, jobs. Our lives become one competition after another and, we are told, this is how it should be.

We compete to achieve because if we achieve, we are then termed a "success" or a "winner" by society's standards and are entitled to all the rewards that come with the title.

The rewards may come in the form of recognition, elevated status or even financial gain. As a result of this phenomenon, we have come to measure a person's "value" not by who they, are but by how much they have achieved or accumulated. Bigger is better, more is never enough and number one is the only one or, as the late Malcolm Forbes so aptly described the times: "He who dies with the most toys wins."

This is the message that has been passed down from generation to generation and it is the message that we are sending our children, but is it the correct message?

Not according to Dr. Alfie Kohn, author of the ground breaking book "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" and Dan Millman, author of "The Inner Athlete: Realizing Your Fullest Potential" and the very popular Peaceful Warrior series. The two present a far different and I must say, quite intriguing view of our culture's most prevalent activity.

Kohn, a psychologist, dares to take on society's obsession with competition by saying that, contrary to popular belief, competition does not bring out the best in an individual.

In fact, says Kohn, competition can undermine a person's self-esteem, poison their relationships and quite often, actually prevent them from doing their best.

Prevent us from doing our best? How can that be? Competition, we are told, in one way or another, every day of our lives, is the way of the world. Page one of the competitor's pledge reads something to the effect of "it's tough out there, it's survival of the fittest, competition builds character, competition makes us better."

Kohn emphatically says no! In fact, he feels that not only can competition prevent us from doing our best, it can be extremely damaging from a psychological standpoint and severely hinder our emotional and psychological development.

Kohn recalls one of his first experiences with competition and I suspect it was much like yours and mine. "I learned my first game at a birthday party," he says. "The game was musical chairs. You remember it, " X players scramble for X-minus one chairs until the music stops. In every round a child is eliminated until at the end, only one child is left triumphantly seated while everyone else is left standing on the sidelines, excluded from play, unhappy..... .....losers." This," concludes Kohn, "is how we learn to have a good time in America."

Dan Millman agrees. "Most of us have played this game; few of us were traumatized by not finding a chair, but we all remember that sinking feeling. Sure life is tough, and we have to deal with disappointment, with losing out sometimes. But what message did that innocent little children's game tell us?

"That there isn't enough to go around, so we had better scramble, maybe even push someone else aside, because we're either going to be 'in' or 'out.'"

Millman, a former world champion gymnast, goes on to say that "competition reinforces these polarized words--'winner' and 'loser' as if the world were divided into two camps, dependent on prowess." When we compete, we get a winner and many losers and while the single winner feels a moment of elation, the losers feel like, well "losers" and therein lies the problem, particularly with children. To a child, the label of "winner" or "loser" often extends far beyond the context of the game. When a child loses, they often feel inadequate, as if they are not good enough and can actually become afraid to try anything new for fear of failing, of being called a "loser." This can be devastating from a developmental point of view.

Even winning doesn't build character according to Kohn and Millman. When a person wins some type of a game or contest there is no real lasting feeling of achievement. The "winner" experiences a brief "high" but that feeling quickly passes and they are quite often left feeling empty.

Tennis legend Chris Evert, on many occasions, has told the story of going back to her hotel room alone, after her first Wimbledon title, and sitting in the room asking herself "Is this it?" She had just captured the most coveted title in the sport and was feeling empty, alone and unhappy.

Evert had done as she was taught, "by the book" so to speak. She had worked hard, competed well and had captured the prize. She was a "winner" yet found herself miserable.

The list of people who are "winners" by society's definition but found that winning did not equal fulfillment and/or happiness is endless? Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson and President Bill Clinton are three names which immediately come to mind.

These are all people who have achieved their ultimate victory. Be it in the field of entertainment, sports or politics, they seemingly "had it all" but still found themselves intensely unsatisfied.

After the initial "high" of the victory wore off, they turned to other avenues in search of the next "psychological sugar high" so to speak, because the competitive high never lasts.

Competition, for some people, can become almost as addictive as a drug. The more they compete, the more they need to compete in order to feel good about themselves. When they do win, the feel great, temporarily, when they lose, they are miserable.

The reason for this is that each time they compete, they are putting their self-esteem on the line. This puts them under a tremendous amount of pressure which could very well explain the many instances of temper tantrums, cheating and poor sportsmanship we see.

Why then do we compete? The reason, according to Dan Millman, is that "competition provides people with a very simplistic, black and white way of thinking and looking at the world. With winning as the only valued goal, it allows us to compare ourselves to others in order to determine our own relative worth."

In other words, we allow our entire self-image to be determined by others who judge us on what we've done or who we've beaten. We're not individuals, we are merely the sum total of our results.

This is disturbing enough for adults, but it's a disaster for our children. "Competition," according to Alfie Kohn, "teaches children to envy winners, dismiss losers and mistrust everyone."

When there is competition, not everyone can "win" so children learn to regard their fellow competitors as obstacles to their own success and thus it becomes difficult for a child to regard others as potential friends because they may well be rivals of some sort tomorrow.

Children learn to focus not on becoming "better" but on becoming "better than" and this can severely hinder the learning process and does not promote a psychologically healthy individual.

I recently spoke to a number of high school and college coaches as well as teaching professionals regarding competition and performance. I asked them simply, "what phrase comes to mind more often when describing an athletes performance under competitive pressure; that the player 'rose to the occasion' or that the player 'choked' under the pressure?"

"Choked" won by a more than 5 to 1 margin. In other words, the "moment of truth," which competition inevitably creates, proved to be an extremely negative, potentially damaging experience a vast majority of the time.

Does this mean that we should eliminate competition from our society altogether? No, because competition does have value provided it is kept in the proper perspective -- when it is used as merely a barometer of ones progress, rather than a measurement of ones worth.

Millman and Kohn do suggest, however, that we approach competition, and the way we present it to our children, from a different angle and next month I'll tell you about a tennis pro in California who is having tremendous success doing just that.

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Greg by using this form.


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