Winning Isn’t Everything

July 26, 2006 at 12:01 am | Posted in Chess | 34 Comments

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Photograph by LeChatMachine

Should children be awarded prizes for winning chess tournaments in elementary school? This question was posed by DG back in May. My response was emphatic:

I can’t disagree with you more. A chess tournament in an elementary school should be fostering life-long chess adherents. For 1st through 3rd grades any and all games should be instructive and not competitive. There is plenty of time for competitive chess. And, if a child is that good, there are definitely competitive avenues for that child to explore.

Then a few weeks later, Dennis Monokrousos picked up the thread in his blog disagreeing with my statement. I’ve just found his post and the comment time has past, so I’ll comment here.

I’ve coached baseball and soccer to children from the ages of 5 to 8 and though I’m no expert, I’ve seen a few things. The kids keep score no matter what and they keep score badly. Even if the parents don’t recognize the winner, the children try to. If the game is close, both teams go home thinking they won. Is that so bad? But I’ve seen coaches foster competition and I watch as the children begin not to enjoy the activity, move on to dread the sport and then quit playing.

At a elementary school chess tournament, the kids will no doubt count their own wins and loses. They might even know who is the best. Let them decide this on their own. If one child succeeds wildly, have them go to the local chess club to play, but please keep the competition out of the schools.

Foster a love of chess to all children. If you pass out three trophies out of 15 participants, you have the distinct possibility of making 12 children hate chess.

Alfred Kohn, writer and child psychologist, writes:

Consider one of the first games our children learn to play: musical chairs. Take away one chair and one child in each round until one smug winner is seated and everyone else has been excluded from play. You know that sour birthday party scene; the needle is lifted from the record and someone else is transformed into a loser, forced to sit out the rest of the game with the other unhappy kids on the side. That’s how children learn to have fun in America.

A paper prepared by Dr. Cynthia E. Johnson, a Human Development Specialists of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, said:

Research says that activities for young children should be noncompetitive but should promote the practice of a limited set of skills. Children this age group need to win often. Their short attention spans keep them from understanding complex rules. They lack the competitive rivalry skills to compete. They cannot develop strategies to defeat another. They aren’t ready for physical competition and have difficulties functioning in team situations. Nine- to 12-year-olds understand competitive play. They have better understanding of their personal capabilities and enjoy competitive games and activities where one wins and one is defeated. Games offer the experience of competence. Twelve-year-olds are candidates for competition. Children 13 and older fare better in competitive activities.

Rae Pica, children’s physical activity specialist, writes:

Of course, you may think the goal of winning would be enough to propel children into performing their best. But young children aren’t cognitively ready to make that connection. They attribute winning or losing to ability, not effort. Nor are they emotionally ready to handle the pressure of playing mistake-free games. And they’re not physically ready to play without making mistakes!

From the University of Arkansas:

Competition can also be damaging; It can make people feel hopeless and it can distract from the inner satisfactions of work and learning. It can make people give up.

Kalyanalakshmy Bhanumurthy a writer in India says:

While not actually visualising a world devoid of competition (the military fields and the market place are always there), one can safely assert that if a child is brought up in a non-competitive ambience, he is more likely to succeed even in the competitive world outside. Not reaching the top rank of the ladder does not crush him emotionally. Therefore he tends to be more successful. If he succeeds, he takes it in his stride, with a wholesome understanding of other aspirants. He does not let the anguish of comparison and competition eat into his bone marrow. Striving competitively becomes a way of thinking and leads to heavier burden on the mind, with the passing of years. Understanding and acceptance of varying talent in oneself and others should be cultivated. Cooperation with others will make for harmony within the self and in relationship with others.

David W. Andrews, Ph.D, 4-H Youth Development of The Ohio State University, writes:

Promoting structured competition among young children may be particularly harmful. Motivated by exploration and play, young children do not need to compete to participate in activities. Neither do they effectively use the results of competitive activities to compare their performances with the performances of others. In fact, children younger than nine years of age do not handle winning and losing well, and repeatedly exposing them to highly competitive situations may negatively affect the development of their self-worth and identity (Minuchin 1977).

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