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The truth behind competition

This is an excerpt from Gotta Ballroom by Christine M. Zona & Chris George.

Unmasking the imposter, decompetition

The process of competition-of striving with another, of seeking excellence together-is really fairly fragile. It balances seriousness with play, intrinsic motivations with extrinsic motivations, and outcome orientation with process orientation. When the balance required for true competition is upset, competition decomposes or degenerates. This alternative process that takes place within a contest is called decompetition. Decompetition is contesting that has devolved or decomposed into striving against. Decompetition is the opposite of true competition.

Like competition, decompetition takes place within a contest structure, but it has morphed into the opposite of true competition. The failure to use separate words for competition and decompetition creates confusion and tends to dull perception. It is important to emphasize that decompetition is not just overly zealous competition, and not competition hyped on caffeine. Nor is it simply competition with an ugly zit on its face. Rather, it is no longer competition at all.

Coaches and teachers encourage their charges to be competitive, but when they cheat, fight, taunt, or belittle, they admonish them not to get so caught up in competition that they lose their moral compass. In reality, they need to be urged to be more competitive, not less. They need to focus more on excellence and enjoying the effort to achieve it. When athletes or students or businesspeople or politicians lie or cheat or steal in an effort to win, they aren’t competing. They are engaged in a quite different process guided by a fundamentally different way of understanding and valuing contests. Although outwardly they are still contesting, the very purpose and nature of the contest is different.

Genuine competition has great potential to enhance and enrich human life. To unleash its potential, the first step is to clearly distinguish it from decompetition. Unfortunately, because we have traditionally used one word, competition, for two distinct processes, the problems that infest one have damaged the reputation of the other. Many people have concluded, falsely, that whenever people contest, the problems associated with decompetition will follow.

Like a barrel that can hold good apples or bad, a contest is a structure that may contain competition or decompetition. Whether competition or decompetition occurs depends on how the participants think about the contest. True competitors think of the contest (and preparation for it) as an opportunity for self-improvement, for feeling camaraderie with others, for enjoying the thrill of a challenge, and related goals. For those involved in decompetition-we will call them decompetitors-the contest is viewed as an opportunity to flaunt personal superiority, to reap the shallow pleasures of conquest, and to steal whatever rewards come with victory.

The meanings, values, and purposes that people bring to the contest are what divide competition from decompetition. And because these can be controlled, it is up to the individual whether a given contest will result in competition or decompetition. Of course, in reality, contests invariably involve some mixture of both. No one is completely competitive or decompetitive. The point is that the ability to recognize and name competition’s imposter is a powerful tool in helping to create genuinely competitive contests.

Coaches, teachers, and parents, have a responsibility to ensure that those entrusted to their guidance learn to become true competitors. Why? Because only true competition can support a dedicated pursuit of excellence and lead to lasting enjoyment.

This is an excerpt from True Competition.