Pondering once more how competing in organized athletics can develop important traits, I have been reading a great deal of opinion pieces about students' search for "safe spaces" on college campuses. Recently, there has been un uptick in student voices clamoring to tell administrators that they need additional protection against both macro- and micro-agressions, those actions or words issued by others (sometimes unknowingly) that denigrate, stereotype, dismiss, or silence another.
When considering the experience of these students (or any others who have been the target of behaviors ranging from thoughtless to the heartless and beyond), I was struck by the clarity of athletic competition as one of the few spaces left where direct conflict, albeit controlled by a set of standard rules and norms, remains intact. There is no doubt when you walk into the gym of your opponent that their goal is to defeat your team, that their fans will root against you regardless of your skill or talents, and that there will be a winner and a loser at the end. It's kind of refreshing, isn't it?
No one who participates will complain that the other side was aggressive and doing everything in its power to come out on top. In fact, the effort to win fully engages the team and the individual participants who prepare for the competition with the primary focus of winning. The focus is not on how we can be protected from the other team's aggression. It's about how we can strategically plan and prepare to overcome any advantage they may have, to maximize our advantage, and in some cases, just figure out how to work harder than them.
Is this a mindset that current college students (student-athletes and non-student-athletes) need to adopt when confronted by aggressions on campus? Well, it depends.
As with most of my analogies, this one is far from perfect. For one, there is no clear and agreed-upon set of rules governing most behavior on campus. Of course, there are rules about behavior. Student codes of conduct and college policies usually outline what specific behaviors are unacceptable. But there is this entire subset of behaviors that never fall under any specific category of a violation of college policy. And, in case no one noticed, we don't have referees in striped shirts running around campus blowing whistles and stopping anyone who engages in bad behavior. So essentially, campus life could be described as a free-for-all game. An unrefereed event with conflicting rules, hundreds of teams, and no scoreboard in sight. So how in the world can we expect our students to embrace the conflict and feel like the outcome of that conflict is fair? How can we help them understand that even if they don't "win" the conflict that there is inherent worth in the process of disagreeing?
Coaches learn to teach their teams that even when they lose, there is a lesson to be learned. "We need to be prepared better next time, we underestimated our opponent, we simply underperformed." When coaches do that well, they create a "growth" environment where their players learn that there is actual value in learning if they learn something from - or grow because of - that loss. They don't evaluate performance solely on whether they won or lost but whether they became a better team as a result.
I think organized sport does this really well. And I wish it could be replicated in other settings where we are educating young people and working with them to become better, more skilled, strategic, empathetic -- you name the skill or trait. The beauty of sport is that you really can't wallow in loss because you usually have another contest coming up; you need to get back on the horse and figure out how you will be different - better - next time you compete.