Every August, I can’t wait to tune into the Little League World Series. I love the games in part because I grew up playing competitive softball. I also adore how passionate the kids are about the game. I love how their raw emotion makes the games wildly unpredictable. This year, our local Maine-Endwell team won it all. It was a blast to follow them, celebrate during the Welcome Home Parade and see the community rally around a bunch of talented tweens and adolescents experiencing a summer they’ll never forget.
What I love most about the LLWS, though, is the expectations. When a pitcher lets go of a wild pitch and it hits the batter, he runs over to check on his competitor at first base…. because it’s expected. When a batter knocks a homerun over the hedges in center field, the third baseman gives him a high five as he rounds the base, headed for home… because it’s expected. When a team is down by one run in the bottom of the sixth with bases loaded and the batter strikes out, the coach reminds him to enjoy the moment and be proud of all of his accomplishments that got him to where he stood that day… because it’s expected. Competition and collaboration coexist in perfect harmony.
Competition has a bad rap. We assume that if we are competing, we also have to have the every man for himself mentality. Yes, competitions can easily turn into this. That is, if that is what is expected. We’ve all been at a game when a parent takes things a step too far in the name of competition. We’ve heard the winner who brags in the faces of others only to crush their spirits. But just as easily as a competition can spiral out of control, leaders can expect and promote the synchronization of competition and cooperation and set the tone accordingly.
In my classroom, we have four houses, or teams, that the students are sorted into on the second day of school. The students keep their houses for the entire school year and we have a total of two competitions. I have heard my fair share of criticism of this but most of it comes from people who don’t step foot in our classroom. They haven’t seen, in this setting, how competition and collaboration can work together in harmony. And it works, for the most part (we are far from perfect), because that’s the expectation.
I am confident that my students will be exposed to competition in their lives. One of the many reasons I have my students compete is to teach them how to compete with full collaboration in mind. I’ve seen how healthy, safe competition can push students to grow, especially when they learn to compete with themselves. I teach them to win and lose graciously. I teach them to congratulate the winner, cheer on the other team, and encourage the peer who is struggling, regardless of his or her team. My goal is to teach my scholars the true spirit of competition, which is collaboration.
I’ll leave you with one last example: the Olympics. Fierce competitors have the chance to showcase their talents to the world. But at the end of the day, isn’t the goal of the Olympics, and the reason why so many people watch it, the spirit of collaboration and unity within the competition? Didn’t Abbey D’Agostino, the runner who stopped mid-competition to help her fellow competitor who fell, steal our hearts just as much as Michael Phelps and all of his gold medal glory?
We are all leaders in some way or another in our lives. So, I challenge you. Don’t shy away from competition because of past memories when the every man for himself mentality was expected. Promote collaboration within competition and my hope is we can all experience how beautifully they can coexist.