THE BLOG

Why the Obsession With Competing?

11/07/2011 13:48 BST | Updated 10/09/2011 10:12 BST

Up and down the country children and adults alike are fretting over school sports days. Sources of worry are diverse: will Jack be allowed to win every race again? Will Ruby's trainers be up to scratch? Will Liam be able to stand the humiliation of losing? Are children being damaged by competitive sports days? Should there be a prize for everyone?

Our school Sports Day was firmly in the competitive camp. As a child, I was able to run at a perfectly reasonable speed unless it was a race, at which point I would go into slow motion, the ground would turn to treacle and I would barely be able to lift my legs. The notable exception to this was when racing my brother - a highly competitive and extremely undignified affair. Needless to say, I was last in every race at every Sports Day and Swimming Gala for my entire school career.

My parents were not amongst those who provided blue tack for the egg and spoon race or those who turned up with running spikes and mowed down Katie's dad the year he was trampled in the fathers' race, neither did they have me training for the sack race in the garden every night, while my mother looked on with a stop watch.

Naturally, I did not look forward to Sports Day, but I learnt that winning didn't really matter. While being good at running is important on Sports Day and when you've been writing rude words in the dust on the headmaster's car, it is not important in maths lessons or, usually, during the Nativity Play. Everyone had a value and was good at something, whether it were running, acting, being kind, tying their shoelaces, maths, music, telling jokes or painting. It was important to learn to lose as well as to win and to respect everyone for what they were good at it.

Fast-forward twenty years and competition is everywhere, whether it be who has the most friends on Facebook, the biggest television or the smallest waist.

Have you ever been to one of those team building events, where you're put into teams with people you don't know well and are given a set of tasks to complete as a team? In my experience, a desperate and undignified struggle for power ensures and no one does very much towards completing any of the tasks set.

What about those friends, who ask after your child and belittle every achievement and milestone, telling you that their child did it earlier or better or, if they really can't trump it, that it must be nice for little Holly to be good at something?

And there's always that person at the gym who looks at the display on your treadmill and, with a knowing smile, turns theirs up higher, isn't there?

On the subject of strangers, we've all come across that driver waiting next to us at the traffic lights who keeps looking over and just has to be the one to pull away fastest.

And, coming back closer to home, how about that neighbour who is always trying to get one up on you, with a bigger television, a nicer car, a neater lawn?

All innocent enough, if rather irritating.

Now, what about that colleague who puts little obstacles in your way so that they can look better in front of the boss? Perhaps they hog the printer when they know you need it, perhaps they steal your ideas and present them as their own, perhaps they push all the difficult clients your way.

Everyone nodding now? And how do you feel about it? Irritated, belittled, crushed, frustrated? Then turn it around: how many times have you been that person trying to be a little bit better than someone else?

We all do it, some more than others, but really, what's the point? By competing over the trivial we introduce an element of conflict into areas of our lives that would be much better off without it.

Our value as individuals is not in whether we have a bigger car than Sue, can run half a mile an hour faster than Tony or can sell more insurance than both Julie and Mark. Doing our personal best is enough - there is no need to compete.

What we seem to forget is that sometimes while every individual is trying to win, as a group, by default we lose.

We are not guaranteed overall individual victory, either. Being the most productive person in a team is not going to line you up for a promotion or safeguard your position if you're competitive and bad for morale.

Likewise, if you constantly compete with and wind up your neighbours, they're more likely to want to release locusts in your greenhouse than water your plants when you're on holiday.

If we could just bring ourselves to put some energy into helping others, rather than trying to beat them, we would have better relationships, a greater sense of fulfilment and a more productive whole.

So, next time you're hurrying to reach the trolley shelter at the supermarket before someone else, slow down and let them in, and when your colleague is gloating over having done something better than you, ask them for advice on how you could improve your performance - change your roles from competitors to team mates.