Competition, Pressure Kills Motivation

Sarada Symonds, Staff Writer

If you were on a swim team when you were a kid, you probably remember weekends spent at meets, from morning to evening. These meets could be as long and tedious as a school day. A large portion of that time wasn’t even spent in the pool, but rather waiting for races.

The huge plus side was that most of the time was spent with friends. Old friendships became stronger, and new friendships were built on the foundation of a love of pretzels. Laying side by side, shivering in your towels, griping about how uncomfortable swim caps were, all of it made you closer to your teammates.

Some kids, however, were unable to join this frivolity.

Whether a result of parents pushing them, or a strong internal drive, some kids accept nothing less than first place. These swimmers come to compete, and as a result, find themselves unable to enjoy the social community the swim team offers.

I will always remember my friend’s older brother. He was one of the best swimmers on the team, and had won awards for the fastest freestyle in county for his age group. His parents made him practice 5 days a week, and were extremely strict about what he ate.

One day he lost a race. He still finished 2nd place, and yet, he was devastated. He was crying and screaming, essentially throwing a tantrum. He kept saying, “I won’t get into Harvard. I won’t get into Harvard.”

He was 9 years old.

What kind of a community teaches these values? Why is 2nd place reason for panic, depression, self-loathing?

From a young age, many kids are conditioned to push themselves. They are taught that they have to be the best. That they have to get into a reputable college.

Parents push them to do a sport in order to earn a scholarship, or pressure them to study all day instead of enjoying unstructured leisure.

At my best friend’s birthday party, her parents pulled her aside and made her play piano because she hadn’t yet practiced that day.

Today, she wins cash prizes in piano competitions, attends a private high school for which she receives a scholarship, and is ready to apply for college.

She is, it would appear, successful, but at what cost?

Too many extracurriculars, especially competitive ones, can have unexpected psychological effects on adolescents. AP psychology teacher Paul Verbanzsky said, “The danger with over scheduling and competition is that students may lose intrinsic motivation instead of doing the act for the mere joy of it.”

A study in 1986 by Robert J. Vallerand, Lise I. Gauvin, and Wayne R. Halliwell, has demonstrated that competition hurts motivation. Children who were told to perform an activity with the goal of “beating” other participants displayed less intrinsic motivation that those who were told to focus on performing the task well. Self determination theory (SDT), proposed by Professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester, focuses on intrinsic motivation. Today, it is studied in countries around the world.

According to a Deci and Ryan, people who demonstrated intrinsic motivation showed more confidence and interest, leading to enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

Kids need to enjoy life, whether they’re playing sports, reading a book, or playing an instrument.

Admittedly, most kids do need motivation in order to practice. Parents are there to encourage and support their children as they confront challenges.

There is a point, however, where this “encouragement” becomes too extreme.

By defining “success” as winning awards, scholarships or other external, material rewards, parents set their children up for frustration and jeopardize their sense of self-worth.

If kids believe the most important thing in life is to amass these superficial accomplishments, they will invariably be disappointed.  Emotional health is far more important.  Understanding that gratification comes from dedication and hard work doesn’t mean that second place is a failure.  It means that success should be measured by what a person accomplishes relative to where that person starts their journey.

It’s time to stop telling kids that they must win, that they have to practice for hours and hours instead of hanging out with friends and discovering the world and its wonders through their own initiative, their own intrinsic motivation to learn.