Competition, Cooperation, and Play
If you operate from the philosophy that all of life is a game in which some people come out winners, then it follows that some people must come out losers. From our earliest years we are taught the connection between playing and games. Children soon learn that winning means bettering someone or something. Winning is praised or rewarded; losing means being a failure.
The link between playing and competition is a strong one. Competition means rivalry, challenge, and excitement. It can be wonderful, exhilarating, inspiring our best efforts. But it may also mean cheating, pressure, putting down the opponent, agreeing to the decisions of referees, and the privilege of the skillful few. It is sad that much of the physical education provided in schools involves training children to take part in competitive sports - in which few will ever engage in later life.
The other side of competition is cooperation. We recognize it as an essential part of the curriculum of our education programs and all of life. We ask our children to work together, and we reprimand them when they fail to share with others. It is little wonder that they are often confused. The messages they get are so often contradictory to them. Win this." "Help others with that." "Win that, but when you do, share it with the rest of us." As adults we can appreciate that competition and cooperation need not be mutually exclusive. Young children don't see it quite so clearly.
Defining play as competition, as so many of us do, is not only limiting, but actually harmful. The attitude "If I'm not good enough to make the team, I'm not good enough, period" pervades our lives - in our business and economic affairs, our education, our politics, our recreation. When our self-concept comes from measuring ourselves against the skills and abilities of others, judging ourselves by the rules that society has set up, and comparing ourselves with our parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, it is very easy to come up wanting. Most of us hear these internal messages: "Be the first, the strongest, the best, and the brightest." "Too bad, you didn't make it." "You lose."
The pressures that result from playing in this dog-eat-dog world, the realm of cutthroat competition, encourage a wide range of stress-related ailments that are often climaxed with suicide or heart attack. We need to take a good, hard look at these old games if we are to survive and flourish individually as well as collectively. But, at the same time, we must be careful of compounding these "serious" issues by getting more serious, or more righteous, about what constitutes play and what does not. The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is excessive seriousness.