The first step to self knowledge is rejecting the familiar

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The first step to self-knowledge is rejecting the familiar.

The statement above presents two conflicting presentations of the same true facts: It is unquestionable that athletic competition both drives and discourages young athletes. However, unspoken assumptions as to the purpose of organized sports underlie significant differences in the implications of either statement. By understanding these underlying assumptions, it is possible to decide which aspect of organized sports is most beneficial to potential young athletes. While being driven to one’s best through competition certainly has its benefits, the values of teamwork and collaboration that can be derived from any athletic participation are more important to success in the rest of life.

The first view, that competition drives young athletes to perform at their best, can be clearly examined through the lens of track and field. The immediate feedback received from watching a competitor pull ahead makes a direct psychological impact on any runner. In head-to-head competition, the direct ability to compare one’s performance with that of one’s rivals can be intensely motivational. Even after the race, the knowledge that with a little more practice victory could have been achieved can impel a young competitor to run those extra miles in preparation. This direct comparison with the abilities of others is one factor that can drive young athletes to be their best, but also makes the opposing viewpoint valid as well. Those who are not “athletically talented” make the comparison and instead of seeing reasons to put in more hours of practice, see reasons not to bother. Constantly failing to win can indeed be highly discouraging. Thus it is unquestionably true that both discouragement and personal drive are potential side effects of organized sports.

At a more fundamental level, however, it is not the viewpoints themselves, but the unspoken assumptions as to the purpose of organized sports that are incompatible and make siding against competition possible. The first view, that competition drives athletes to be their best, is a valid aim if being good at sports is a useful end goal. Does being able to run 400 meters faster than anyone else in the country serve any practical purpose? In a world generally free from the necessity to escape large predators, probably not. Nonetheless, it is true that the perseverance and dedication necessary to achieve that goal are worthy skills. The ends of development of dedication should, however, be compared with the opposing assumption: that playing a team sport is valuable, regardless of the level of success. Through participating in a team sport, young athletes can develop the ability to work with others to a common purpose. In the modern workplace — focused on teams, interactivity and collaboration — this life skill offers a clear advantage. While perseverance can be developed in other areas (particularly academic ones, where the benefits are more tangible), few pursuits offer the ability to develop the skills required to participate in a team. Deemphasizing the competitive aspect of team sports (or at least providing the option to play team sports in a less competitive environment) allows the development of collaboration to reach a wider youth population and spreads the benefits of organized sports to more young athletes.

In the end, the statements present two true facts that have different implications. Both perseverance and teamwork are vital to the success of any adult, and are worthy goals of an athletic program. However, by reducing the emphasis on competition, the benefits of working with a team can accrue to a larger cohort of young athletes.

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