Column: Learning How To Lose

"Friendship Day" undermined valuable lessons of competition
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Remember Field Day? For most of us, it was a hallowed year-end school tradition, right up there with ice cream socials, and signing yearbooks. The kids loved it, of course, and looked forward to it every year.

But not at Burns Park, one of Ann Arbor’s oldest, most desirable and most educated neighborhoods – and occasionally, one of its kookiest. There is a reason many townies jokingly refer to it as “The Republic of Burns Park.”

The Burns Park PTO might be the most active one in the state. In the late ’90s, some parents, led by a social work professor, decided the competitive spirit of Field Day was too much for the kids, and changed “Field Day” to “Friendship Day” – replacing foot races, long jumps and tug-of-wars with games that emphasized cooperation over competition.

A noble notion – but the kids hated it. During one event, a cross-section of students from all grades had to walk together on two long boards. The big kids kept yelling at the little ones to lift their left foot, then their right – but the first graders didn’t know which was which. They all fell over, and the first graders burst into tears.

I suspect that’s not exactly what the parents had in mind.

For the students bused in from the less affluent part of town, canceling Field Day really stunk. All year, they had to compete in class against some of the nation’s most privileged students, where success is publicized in every way imaginable. But on Field Day, many of these students were, for the first time all year, winning the medals.

Well, no more of that, either.

I grant the parents had good intentions. I’ll also take a wild guess that some of them wanted to spare their kids the specter of not being at the front of their class for the first time. But few parents seemed to object when their kids got gold stars for reading, writing and arithmetic.

In trying to protect some students from finishing last, they not only denied the bused-in kids their day in the sun – quite literally – they denied their own kids the chance to learn some humility, to realize losing a foot race is no big deal, and to discover the next morning that the sun still came up, right on time, and they were going to be just fine.

Instead, we confuse competing with bullying, which schools are rightly focused on eradicating. But the two could not be more different. Competition, properly taught, teaches respect, fair play, and good sportsmanship – the exact opposite of bullying.

Friendship Day lasted only a couple years – the new P.E. teacher has brought a nice balance of the old and the new – but the effects still linger. A few Burns Park parents and teachers have told me too many kids don’t know how to accept losing – especially the boys. If they get knocked out playing four-square, they simply yell, “Do over!” and that’s exactly what they get.

As one of my friends said, “My kids need to learn how to lose. Without me there. Or any parent. And get over it.”

If you can’t learn these important lessons on the playground, they won’t be any easier during auditions for the high school play or tryouts for the band.

We are raising a generation of domesticated kittens, then throwing them out into the Serengeti. We might feel better about it – but in the long run, they won’t.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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  1. May 25, 2012 at 11:05 am | permalink

    I am weeping with joy at this article! It is absolutely perfect–of course, because I agree with it but also because it raises a great point in that *not everyone gets a ribbon*. As part of my job, I push into dozens of classrooms and see many examples of what John describes. I don’t mean any disrespect to the teachers–as I’m sure they mean well; I think it is more from the parents who fear that their unique snowflake might get his/her feelings hurt and his/her self esteem might lower by .008 of a notch.

    In my experience, kids *like* competition. Give me two struggling readers (oh hey, I have dozens!) and put them in a race to read something and they leap to the occasion. The one who “comes in second” isn’t any worse for the wear and they have both completed the assignment.

    On a personal note, I was and am NOT an athlete, so Field Day (and gym class) was like torture for me, but I knew that once we got back in the classroom and did the spelling bee, I’d finish in the top few people. Therefore, I wasn’t crushed when people didn’t rush to pick me for a team or when I came in near the bottom of the stupid egg-spoon balance thing. My parents instilled a nice sense of self esteem in me and I just knew that there were things I wasn’t good at…so what? Like John says, let the kids who struggle academically but excel athletically have their day of awesome.

    I honestly can say that I worry about what will happen when some of these “unique snowflakes” with the helicopter parents stumble their way into their first jobs…bosses don’t give you ribbons and the only reward you get, generally, is to not be fired on Friday. I realize how harsh that sounds, but like I said above *not everyone gets a ribbon*

  2. By A2person
    May 25, 2012 at 4:38 pm | permalink

    Field Day is fine with me, my kids enjoy the activities and competition, and losing is no big deal.

    But I do take issue with teacherpatti’s suggestion that competition is a good thing in the classroom. I have found quite the opposite. When my avid reader was made to complete a “reader’s log,” and encouraged to fill it up in a race with the class, she became stressed out and anxious, and what was an extremely enjoyable activity that she did without prompting became a source of daily stress. When a competitive speed-math game was introduced in her classroom, she went from enjoying multiplication to deciding that she was bad at it, and dreading what she perceived as public humiliation in the game.

    This is the same kid who plays competitive soccer, and loves it, win or lose. There’s a difference. She gets the most out of school when collaboration and cooperation are the norm. Sports are a different story.

  3. May 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm | permalink

    I hate to sound like a four square authority (which I’m not), but it appears that the cry “Do over” is part of the general way that game is played. See [link] for a simple account of the rules, and [link] for a fantastically complicated collection of every playground’s house rule that someone was able to compile.

  4. May 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm | permalink

    I’m not a sports fan, but I have come to appreciate this column as a source of valuable insights about what it is to be human, and to care about the human community. Thank you for the lessons.

  5. May 26, 2012 at 11:30 am | permalink

    a2person…I’m sorry you “take issue” with my statement. I have found just the opposite to be true. I am basing my experience on dozens of kids that I work with, and so my perspective is different. I think we are talking about different things, as I am talking about working with small groups of kids, and that may be the difference. I can’t fathom a teacher making something a source of public humiliation…when you work with small groups of kids (like I do), you are lucky enough to be able to give encouragement and props to all three or four so the ones who don’t come in first still feel awesome. I think that is the key. If a teacher is doing games in his/her classroom and kids are feeling like “losers”, then something needs to change either in the teacher, the kid or the classroom.

    As an aside, competition is a part of life and I don’t know how to change that. I have an anxiety disorder myself and used to feel very anxious about competing, so I feel that pain.

  6. By A2person
    May 27, 2012 at 3:33 pm | permalink

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. For what it’s worth, the teacher did not “make” it into a source of public humiliation. The game was made to be fun. But my kid found it quite stressful to perform in a high-speed public competition, and it sucked the enjoyment out of it for her.

    There is quite a bit of research that shows that collaboration and cooperation in the classroom (not competition) leads to kids who are inquisitive and not afraid to take risks. This is to be compared to classrooms that produce kids primarily interested in getting the “right” answer, or winning, or besting their peers.

    Happily, our school generally embraces a collaborative philosophy. These episodes were not indicative of climate in general.