Evidently the verbal and physical aggression of parents watching their kids play rugby league in the Penrith district west of Sydney has become a safety issue and is threatening to discourage participation in the “game”.
In applauding the initiative, Brad Fittler, a former Australian league team captain, observed that some parents live their lives through their children. Of his own career as a junior player he said, “I have clearer memories as a 10 year-old player than I do from representing Australia…mainly bad ones…getting chased by parents”.
And the problem is not confined to rugby league. Last year, Canberra football administrators took the extraordinary step of locking the crowd out of an under-12s soccer game after a previous meeting between the sides had resulted in a violent pitch battle involving parents.
The decision of the management of the Penrith District Junior Rugby League to make matches non-competitive for junior age groups provides a real clue as to where the real problem lies.
Thank goodness there are Penrith league enthusiasts who have tumbled to the fact that whatever good there is in playing the sport can be undermined by its intrinsic competitiveness.
But let’s face it – this is true of all competitive sport. Participation in sporting contests can be beneficial. It can be fun and can encourage healthy physical activity. Under the right conditions (those that genuinely subordinate winning to simply taking part), sport can also build self-esteem, resilience, confidence and social skills. But very often the conditions are not “right” and competition turns out to be psychologically and socially detrimental.
In his polemical book, No Contest, Alfie Kohn draws on hundreds of studies to make a powerful case against competition in all areas of life. He argues that our struggle to defeat each other — at work, at school, at play, and at home — turns all of us into losers.
There is no such thing as “healthy competition”, he says, because competition always means that one person can succeed only if others fail. The consequences of this include:
- feelings of self-worth become dependent on external evaluation – personal value is defined in terms of wins and losses;
- children learn that it isn’t enough to be good or to do one’s best – they must triumph over others;
- others are seen as obstacles to success – a sure recipe for hostility;
- winners are envied, losers are looked down on;
- the development of trust, co-operation, empathy and generosity is undermined;
- learning is impeded because of heightened anxiety, reduced concentration, restricted learning from others and a preoccupation with extrinsic (e.g., rewards) rather than intrinsic (e.g., interest and satisfaction) outcomes
Kohn is not suggesting that children shouldn’t learn discipline and tenacity, that they shouldn’t be encouraged to succeed or even be exposed to failure. But none of these requires winning and losing — that is, having to beat other children and worry about being beaten. When classrooms and playing fields are based on cooperation rather than competition, children feel better about themselves. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem doesn’t depend on winning a spelling bee or a game of rugby league. Even if Kohn may be overstating the case, there is a great deal in what he says.
One of the great advantages of nature play over sport – which increasingly passes for play in our society – is that it calls for co-operation rather than competition. It is the form of play that Fred O Donaldson calls “original play” – “original” because it is displayed by all species as a powerful means of communicating love, trust and belonging.
Even at its best, sport is competitive and divisive, leading almost inevitably to tribal behaviour – them and us, home team and opposition, winners and losers. Original play is completely different. It is the opposite of “them and us”. Original play involves just “us” – us together, not competing but co-operating, us sharing equally in the rewards of an experience and us accepting one another unconditionally and not for what we can contribute to winning.
Play in nature – whether it is the free play of children or the more structured nature activities that adults prefer – is very largely original play. No competition is involved in collecting firewood with your mates or looking for an easy route through a cliff line or cooling your feet in a creek. The people with you are simply companions in an enterprise that requires nothing more than a willingness and an ability to join in – for the sake of the activity itself.
I accept that original play will never replace competitive sport in our society and I am not saying that it should (after all I am a competitive rower). But what I would like to see is a great deal more value being given to, and much more time being spent in, nature play. Anything that counters the divisive forces that permeate our culture has to be taken seriously – and sharing nature experiences with others is certainly one of those things.