I often go back to Alfie Kohn's 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition to test my beliefs about the value of competitive sport. I don't agree with everything Kohn says (shocking, I know) and I think it's not completely appropriate to group athletic competition in with other types of competition. I DO believe that the competitive playing field can, when regulated by thoughtful and ethical people, be an environment that truly supports positive moral development in young athletes (and even some older ones).
But Kohn forces us to look at some assumptions that have been made throughout history, particularly the "sports builds character" mantra that is accepted by some without any critical examination of what that means. Kohn cites a 1971 article by Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko that was published in Psychology Today entitled "Sport: If You Want to Build Character, Try Something Else." Ogilvie and Tutko discussed in that article a personality profile of 15,000 athletes that showed that they demonstrated a "low interest in receiving support and concern from others, low need to take care for others, and low need for affiliation." They also concluded that those personality traits "seem(ed) necessary to achieve victory over others." Now I haven't read the original article and am not familiar with the Ogilivie/Tutko study but certainly we should always question the demographics of the sample group (particularly gender), what type of sport the subjects played, not to mention all of the other questions one should ask about research such as this before blindly accepting the results. And, of course, the study is now almost 40 years old.
That study aside, this kind of research begs the questions of WHY these personality traits are demonstrated. Unless we buy into the theory that personality is completely established at conception and that character traits are immutable, we have to look at the environments that may help perpetuate these traits. The influence that coaches, teammates, parents, and others have over the competitive environment is significant. So how can we just accept that it is the "competitive environment" is simply detrimental to the moral development of young athletes? Doesn't that completely dismiss the impact of those people around the athletes who manage the competitive experience for them?
Even on the college level, where some would argue that an individual student-athlete's moral foundation has already been set, I see student-athletes all the time who are competing fairly, with respect for their opponents, themselves, and teammates, and often see them as a reflection of their coach. Now do I have proof that they compete that way because the coach has influenced them to conduct themselves that way? Or is it because the college coach tends to recruit student-athletes that already reflect his or her own ethical characteristics? As is often the case, a little of both.
When I was coaching, we had a long-standing rivalry with another team in our conference that to me, epitomized how high level competition could be healthy. For reasons that I am not sure of, our games were almost always nail-biters, both teams played with high intensity, but when the game was over, the shaking of hands was always genuine and on the bus or in the locker room after the game, my players would invariably say things like: "I love playing that team because it's always a clean game," "Their players have great sportsmanship," or "that team plays hard but they're never cocky." Not surprisingly, I also had a good, respectful relationship with that team's coach and my players saw that. What got my team fired up and ready to play was not this unbridled hatred toward the other team. It was the expectation of a good game and that my players would have to compete at their highest level to win the game. And I have no doubt that my players played just as hard against them as any other team. I think when athletes have that kind of experience, they walk away with a model of competition as it should be. And I think that happens a lot. It's just not as newsworthy as the incidents where teams or fans are brawling with each other.
Competition itself - like a super power - can be used for good or evil. Kohn makes some compelling arguments about how competition in its rawest form, can negatively impact relationships and hinder growth on a number of levels. But is competition bad simply because it is competition? Or is it only dangerous when it goes unchecked?