Competition and Cooperation


Many worthwhile values have been perceived to be inherent in sports participation, yet they are not accessible automatically to everyone who participates. There are values that are not only worthwhile to pursue but need to be made available and accessible to more youth. It’s not a matter of saturating a community with organized sports leagues or merely upgrading physical education programs in the schools. Many youngsters, including many who participate do not really benefit from sports for a variety of reasons, but at least in part because of the “win-at-all costs” concepts prevalent today. Participation in sports should be a vehicle for all-around personal growth and the development of a positive self-image. For participation in sports to be a growth experience the concept of “winning must be put into its proper perspective.

There are winners and there are “winners”. Everyone needs to “win” sometimes if he or she is to gain satisfaction from any sport. Winning can however, be broadened to include progress on many levels. Each individual can learn to set their own personal goals and define “winning” in their own personal way. Coaching styles should be directed in such a way as to develop the skills and attitudes that help an individual to feel in charge of their own life and to feel like a winner. An approach is needed which provides the essential experiences which not only make sports values more accessible, but provides the motivation to participate in the sport, learn the necessary skills, and develop the self-esteem necessary to approach life with confidence — and that’s what it’s all about.

An important issue has to do with how children perceive themselves. If they have a very weak perception of the power they have over their life, or believe that they are dependent people, at the whims of their environment, then we need to strengthen and encourage the perception that they can affect many things in their life through the efforts which they put forth. By trying, by thinking, by extending their best effort, they can affect what happens to them in their life. If my perception is, “I can’t do anything,”: then my attitude is “why try?” and my motivation is zero and all the capabilities in the world, all the skills in the world, will be useless. On the other hand, if my perception is “I can do something,” then my attitude is to try and my motivation is high and even if I don’t have the skills or capabilities, as long as the perception stays alive I will innovate, try, work and ultimately develop the capabilities I need to achieve.

Sports programs can provide an important ingredient in developing an environment that cultivates three basic perceptions:

1. I am a capable person who can do things for myself.

2.I am an important, contributing part of things greater than myself.

3. I have the power to influence what happens to me in my life.

Of course this means that the adults who work in this environment must understand these perceptions and how they are developed. In creating this environment you must make sure that youth are involved because they want to be. They need to be appreciated for themselves and taken seriously as a person. They need to be listened to. There has to be an effort made to make sure youth are not asked for more than they have been prepared to deliver. Youth need to be perceived as having a significant role to play in life and a major purpose of the program is that they will achieve a realization of that purpose if they stay with the program. Everyone (youth, leaders, and parents) needs to support one another.

Unfortunately, there are many who work with competitive sports programs who are not trained or who do not believe in the principles that will help youth to grow and develop. Coaches need to have technical expertise in the sport and work at the application of their expertise according to effective principles of teaching sports skills, teamwork and individual growth and development. Coaches need to be effective counselors. They need to be dedicated to the idea of helping each individual to achieve on what ever level each is capable of through the utilization of physical skill instruction and the application of principles pertaining to the development of positive perceptions and positive self-image. Children who have the greatest possibilities for top athletic performance and in life itself are those whose parents pay particular attention to the child’s upbringing (in all aspects) during the first seven years.

Athletic performance, as well as success in life therefore, begins the day the child is born. As early as six months to two years children can be provided with activity and recreation experiences such as a beginning water adjustment and learning to swim. Not with the purpose in mind of aiming at future Olympic competition but as an ideal form of fun, relaxation and physical conditioning throughout life. If a youth is interested, he or she may be encouraged to get involved in a competitive experience. Sports programs should take into consideration all those who desire or might desire to begin preparation for “making the team” by fostering and working with community programs which teach basic athletic skills at all levels. Ideally, a child develops his or her athletic ability while progressing up through various levels of advancement. Adequately skilled staff at all levels give students every opportunity for making the team.

We want to encourage the type of continuity necessary to develop excellence through a comprehensive and progressive program. A child’s aspirations should be directed toward certain goals in life. Whatever he or she plans to be “when he or she grows up”, experiences along the way should encourage the striving for excellence (not necessarily perfection) – never mediocrity. Setting the goal for participation on a competitive team may open up the way for a valuable learning experience, developing desirable attitudes; learning new skills; developing dedication, self-discipline, self-denial, and physical fitness, attributes lacking in many of this nation’s youth and adults alike. Over the long haul, it’s striving for excellence that counts. Teachers and coaches who are most concerned about personal development – the development of desirable attitudes, and winning as a by-product (in that order) – teach, develop and enrich the youngster. He learns the price he must pay in hard work, determination, and frustration, whether he or she becomes a champion or competes for personal pleasure. The experience youngsters have will condition their mind, as well as their body for a more positive existence. Teachers and coaches who are sensitive to this overall philosophy and who can relate to youngsters, especially ages twelve and under where guidance, empathy and genuine love are of primary importance, are worth their weight in gold (and most assuredly would not be paid what they are worth).

An athlete conditions his or her body physiologically for greater physical efforts by progressively increasing the physical stress, combined with proper habits of nutrition, sleep, etc.. As the body adapts to the stress of short, easy workouts, the athlete increases the amount of stress by doing longer, harder workouts. He must also condition himself psychologically in a similar manner. In the crucial transition period of increasing competitive drive, the child needs a compassionate coach who displays more than the ability to be well organized and a thorough knowledge of the sport, important as these factors are in the effective coach. A coach should not be merely be ambitious and able to get good results but also know how to handle and understand children. A coach working with children during their formative years can do a great deal to develop desirable or undesirable attitudes. The children under such guidance unconsciously adopt the attitudes the coach displays. This applies not only during workout sessions and other team functions, but also in the type of personal relationship the coach develops with each individual youth. Most athletes develop a strong loyalty to their coach and have confidence in his or her ability. It is important, therefore, that a coach this ability, but also that they have a conviction of the value and dignity of the individual. Justified confidence is the cornerstone of any program. An over-critical parent who questions the coach’s ability and methods can undermine this confidence. Coaches who must constantly protect themselves from the criticism the team’s parents are in danger of losing much of their capacity to coach effectively. Coaches make errors in judgment just as we all do; compassion and understanding on the part of the parents is a necessary prerequisite for a successful program. Parents must clearly understand that the pressure on coaches to “win-at-all-costs” comes from parents. In working with youth in the community or in organized school athletic programs, the growth and development of each individual child MUST be more important to everyone concerned than the numbers on any scoreboard.

The Objectives of Sport

1. To provide opportunities for social and emotional development.

2. To furnish a wholesome and worthwhile physical and recreational outlet.

3. To provide opportunities to learn sportsmanship and develop awareness of team cooperation.

4. To provide an educational environment.

5. To provide opportunities to learn good health habits.

6. To provide training and competition that will aid in the development of worthwhile attitudes.

7. To provide a wide base of experience for all and not just the highly skilled.

8. To provide opportunities for developing good working habits and self-evaluation.

These objectives are met by having properly supervised and organized practices and competitive experiences with opportunity for team functions not limited just to competition. A coach must be able to develop the proper types of practices and competitive experiences that correspond to the level, skill, and scope of achievement of the various ages and abilities on the team or within an individual’s ability. A Coach needs to be willing to teach team members to set goals in other aspects of their life such as school and establishing good health habits. Activities need to be organized in such a way as to maximize participation in competently developed practices and competitive opportunities, with tensions minimized and development within the scope and good sequential development of all team members. Nowhere in the list of objectives, is the development of national champions or a winning team mentioned. Mediocrity should be no one’s goal – everyone should strive for excellence. However, the real winner in sports is often not the winner of the race, for he or she may be achieving that goal at the cost of failure to attain some of the other goals available in such a program, which may be more important. It must always be kept in the forefront of one’s mind that the only justification of any sports program is that it exists for the benefit of the child’s long-term development not for the fleeting contents of the scoreboard.

The question of children’s readiness for competition has to be answered on an individual basis. Even more, it depends on the wisdom of parents and coaches to make competitive sports ready for children. I cannot think that the agony of one child’s defeat can be the thrill of another’s victory, or that winning is the only reward and losing is punishment. Children and psychologists know this to be untrue. The drive to tackle physical barriers and, later, to compare one’s ability with others is a natural part of a child’s development, vital in forming feelings of competence and a secure self-identity. All are key ingredients for competitiveness and self-motivation in sports–and doesn’t have to come at someone else’s expense. Learning to win and to lose are parts of the same process.

Parents and coaches need to be able to conduct a dialogue helping to develop guidelines to make informed choices — not whether competitive sports are good or bad, but what kinds of sports, under what circumstances, help or hinder what types of personal growth in which specific children. This is why it is so important to take time to know and understand the child and to design an approach to that individual when it comes to teaching and training for a particular sport. It is hard to debate that winning is important, but children are more important. In 1979 two groups, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed a Bill of Rights for Young Athletes


Each child should have:

1. The right to participate in sports.

2. The right to participate at a level commensurate with their maturity and ability.

3. The right to have qualified adult leadership.

4. The right to play as a child and not as an adult.

5. The right to share in the leadership and decision making of their sports participation.

6. The right to participate in safe and healthy environments.

7. The right to proper preparation for participation in sports.

8. The right to an equal opportunity to strive for success.

9. The right to be treated with dignity.

10 The right to have fun in Sports.

Adults can make it impossible for young people to learn how to cooperate by developing a climate of cooperation within a competitive experience. Young people will face enough competition in their life. In fact, adults should work to control some of the intense competition that young people may face. Children under the age of 12 should not be forced to deal with a “win at all costs” philosophy in any organized competitive team sport. Sports programs for youth need to adhere to the following rules:

1. Anyone who wants to play can play.

2. Each participant plays an equal amount of time.

3. No awards are given for winning a game but for: Participation, Meeting personal or team goals, and Effort

Young people need good recreation programs. They do not need to deal with the pressures of winning in order to build the ego of the coach, parents, or youth leaders. During middle or late adolescence they are much better able to deal with that type of pressure. But if they are not prepared for it by being allowed to develop free of that intense pressure, severe personality deterioration can occur. This same problem occurs in classrooms where teachers assign grades through the use of a normal curve. There is absolutely no justification for such a practice and parents should see to it that such practices halt. Schools should use a system of criterion referenced grading. Here the criteria for receiving a certain grade are specified at the beginning of the course. They should be challenging, but if every student meets the criteria for an “A” grade then every student in the course should receive an “A” grade. To just say that only 10% may receive an “A” and 10% must fail is the height of educational stupidity.


Adults must make sure that they do not use competition as the sole method of motivating young people. Youth should not be measured by or compared to others. Each young person should be taught to measure their own progress based on the goals that they have set for themselves. It is very easy to fall into the trap of using competition to motivate. There are even fairly well developed sets of myths that support this approach.

MYTH 1: Our society is highly competitive and children must be taught to succeed in a “survival of the fittest” world. Many advocates of competition insist that schools and homes must emphasize a dog-eat-dog theory of survival in the occupational world. To be better than the Joneses is the deepest desire of such individuals. Yet the truth is that the vast majority of human interaction, in our society as well as in all other societies, is not competitive, but cooperative. We are a social species. Cooperation is a biological necessity for humans. Without cooperation, no group, no family, no organization would be able to exist. Even in fighting wars and conducting competitive activities, there are vast underpinnings of cooperative agreements concerning how the competition or conflict will be conducted and the ways in which antagonists can express their hostility toward each other. There can be no competition without underlying cooperation. A study of social psychology suggests that competition is a very, very small part of interacting with other individuals in our society and probably not a very important type of human interaction.

MYTH 2: Achievement, success, outstanding performance, superhuman effort, the rise of the great leader, drive, ambition, and motivation depend upon competing with others. The appeal of this myth to persons who wish to see greatness is overwhelming. Where is the great person who will set the world straight and show us a better way of life? The truth is, however that higher achievement does not take place within an environment of forced competition. Performance can actually go down under competitive goal structures, and a person who is superior in one situation may be markedly inferior in another. The use of competition will, under most conditions, decrease the quality of a person’s work and will in no way determine who is the best person to achieve under a variety of conditions. Competitive motivation interferes with one’s capacity for the adaptive problem solving necessary in dealing with complex issues with others. The only children who are motivated by competition are those who believe they have a good chance of winning. Persons do not exert effort to achieve the impossible. Competition is threatening and discouraging to those who believe they cannot win, and many children will withdraw psychologically or physically or only half try in competitive situations. Children are motivated when a goal is desirable, possible, challenging, concrete, and requires positive interaction with others. A competitive goal structure does not affect any of those variables in a positive way unless the child believes he has an equal chance of winning. The whole area of intrinsic motivation shows that motivation does not depend upon competition. Even in extrinsic motivation situations, competition will exist only when there is a limited amount of the reinforcer (it cannot be shared with everyone), and when every child believes he has a chance to win. As children grow, parents need to foster and encourage the child’s ability to deal with others in a cooperative way. Having an appropriate set of rules to follow and being helped to gain effective communication skills are two very important component parts of this process. An additional element has to do with the feelings of acceptance and the closeness as well as the emotional relationship that exists between parents and children.

Children must be helped to feel accepted without conditions by both parents. There is probably no set of skills more important to a human being than the skills of cooperative interaction. The vast majority of human interaction is cooperative in nature. Without cooperation among individuals, no group, family, organization, or school would be able to exist. Without high levels of cooperation there would be no coordination of behavior. No two individuals could communicate with each other or interact without cooperating to form a common language and agreed upon forms for behavior. Occupations, education, exchange of goods and services, or any other type of coordinated human action would not exist without cooperation. Cooperation is the most important and most basic form of human interaction and the skills of cooperating successfully are some of the most important skills a person needs to master. Competition in various forms is also an integral part of our lives, and yet most do not fully understand the positive and negative consequences of it. We have for too long ignored some of the destructive elements of competition and have also failed to teach the necessary skills for effective cooperation. Much current research seems to indicate that certain forms of competition in current vogue in sports, classrooms and in the family have a tendency to create environments which are destructive. Perhaps one of the reasons why competition is overused and even has destructive results when used appropriately is because children are not taught effective cooperation skills. Children must feel good enough about themselves to be able to decide whether or not they want to compete in a given situation. Many feel that they have no choice and that in order to be accepted, or to be a “winner” they must compete. They need to be able to see participation as a value in itself and have the communication skills necessary to be able to participate in an effective way. How Parents can Enhance the Development of Cooperation

1. Give children a part in planning. Let them decide on the distribution of chores and the penalties for not following through.

2. Be specific. Make sure everyone knows exactly what is expected of him or her and when. A written chart seems to work best, at least at the start.

3. Be generous with praise. Nothing encourages effort more than sincere appreciation.

4. Be flexible. If a child makes a team and practice gets him home late for a while, help to arrange an equitable job swap among siblings. Many unexpected things may come up that make keeping an exact schedule difficult. If you are understanding (and yet firm), you are more likely to gain like treatment when your schedule requires extra help.

5. Answer all questions clearly and cheerfully, no matter how obvious the answers may seem to you. Don’t ever say anything disparaging or ask, “Can’t you figure that out for yourself?” Or you might say “I’d like you to try to find that answer. Would you like me to help you do that?”

6. Don’t take over. It really punctures a child’s morale to see that you don’t think he or she can manage a task and they will be much less likely to want to try again.

7. Keep the lines of communication open. Meet together at specified times to discuss how things are going, what needs change or improvement.

8. Keep your values straight. Remember that cooperation is the goal, not perfection. An occasional lapse in an overall pattern of responsible behavior is best forgiven and forgotten. We all sometimes put off our chores.

9. Relax. If you have been a meticulous housekeeper and a neatnik, the odds are against your children measuring up to your standards. That doesn’t mean you must tolerate sloppiness, but it does mean that everyone will be happier and you will gain a lot more time for yourself if you don’t throw a fit every time things are not done to your exact specifications. Kids can be absolutely great, but they are still kids, and we can’t expect them to perform like miniature adults. Don’t come unglued at every spill or accident, it will make your children more nervous and less likely to want to cooperate. Remember this advice given by one mother to another who complained about her son not making his bed every day: “Why not ask him to close the door so that you won’t notice?”

10. Be generous with praise. Be generous with honest sincere praise. IF NO ONE NOTICES, WHY BOTHER!


A former NFL Athlete

After a stint in the NFL I moved into School coaching. I was convinced that the Vince Lombardi school of coaching football was not the approach I wanted to take. To produce an excellently conditioned, disciplined, and motivated team, I had experienced an approach that was authoritarian and brutal. Jerry Kramer, in his book, Instant Replay, stated that Vince Lombardi “Made football players of men and men of football players.” To me, that statement said that there was something about Lombardi’s coaching which brought the most out of his players; personal maturity and athletic prowess. The coaches I have been associated with, both as a player and as a coach, who used this particular method produced winning teams, but I couldn’t see any changes in the athletes’ personalities. Players who were bigoted remained bigoted. Selfish, egotistical or immature athletes remained as they were or sometimes got worse but seldom if ever changed for the better. Athletic prowess was gained; the teams won their games but personalities stayed the same or deteriorated; there was little or no positive growth in attitudes, beliefs or personal characteristics. The athletes did experience a feeling of togetherness. I think mainly because of the coercion which they all experienced together and the common fear of punishment if they didn’t win. For illustrative purposes only, I would compare this type of togetherness to that experienced by suppressed minorities, being forced to feel a part of the group for the cumulative advantages and solidarity offered by the group–more or less as a defensive measure.

As a result of my observations I started looking at the kids as people not as trainable horses. I listened more, and analyzed the affect generated by my presence and the learning structure which I had created. I started paying attention to what was happening to the athletes in terms of personal growth as well as athletic ability. I started making changes based on outcomes which I could logically predict. The first thing I did was to break the role relationship which generally develops between coach and players, which hamper open communication. (From my experiences, communication in Lombardian structures is characterized by a “one way” communication, directed to the players from the coaches, with little room for feedback, thus inhibiting a two way information flow between players and coaches.)

With much hard work the old role relationships were dismantled, trust was developed, communication lines were opened. This was evidenced to me by the verbal and non-verbal interaction between the athletes and myself. Formal conversations became informal, personal exchanges. Eye contact became meaningful, and smiles and other non-verbal communications became more prevalent over time.

Sport as a subset of larger society, teaches athletes to behave in certain ways, and these ways are used by these individuals in later life to meet similar situations. More specifically, athletes are taught to meet situations in particular ways. Example: Bill is taught to meet pressure with pressure in his defensive tackle position. later in life, Bill meets pressure with pressure at the office, instead of rational thinking. The attitudes are the key. Attitudes and beliefs are learned within a coaching, learning, teaching environment which individuals keep with them in whole or part of their lives. It is important to establish coaching methods, which will satisfy parents and children, and refrain from teaching attitudes, which will be nonproductive or destructive when, transferred to non-athletic situations. Coaches should create situations where open communication, joint decision making, and cooperation in human interactions, can be learned and experienced.

There are four basic relationship statements:

1. Individual and personal growth lead to team growth.

2. Team growth can in turn lead to individual growth.

3. Individual growth can be equated with team growth.

4. Team growth can not necessarily be equated with individual growth.

I want to allow for the greatest amount of individual personal growth. My goal is to structure coaching in such a way to allow for possibilities of growth and not to place arbitrary limits on that growth. I want athletes to consider the other team as something to help achieve our goals, not as an enemy. Our goal is to achieve excellence.

I never praise a team for winning a game. Winning is reinforcing in itself. I praise the team for working together, accomplishing their goals and achieving excellence. Football then can become an art of preparation, execution, and accomplishment, rather than a game of violence, played by men trying to destroy each other, to win at all costs. On the game day I am not the decision maker – I am the consultant. The decision making process is totally in the hands of the team members. This way team members learn how to think, how to make decisions and how to set and reach specific goals.


Rudyard Kipling observed that it was a rare man who can treat winning and losing as the same. But we can try harder than we are. After losing a 7-6, 7-6 match to Poland’s Wojtek Fibak in a recent tennis tournament, Vitas Gerulaitis of the U.S. refused the traditional handshake, prompting Fibak to charge, “Young American sportsmen don’t behave like gentleman or even humans. They act like machines that have to win every time. They never learned how to lose.” By changing our definition of winning we create a situation where each individual is in charge of his or her own success rather than being at the mercy of others. Competition can be exciting, worthwhile and can create an opportunity to learn and grow depending upon the kind of structure and setting in which it occurs and whether individuals are there because they have freely chosen to do so and have chosen for the right reasons.


Reaching Out – Interpersonal Effectiveness and Self-Actualization David W. Johnson, Prentice Hall

Learning Together and Alone – Cooperation, Competition, and Individualization David W. & Roger T. Johnson, Prentice Hall

Joining Together – Group Theory and Group Skills David W. & Frank P. Johnson, Prentice Hall