Home > Uncategorized > Follow-Up: Separating Out Issues of Collaboration and Sports

Follow-Up: Separating Out Issues of Collaboration and Sports

My post on a teacher’s view of the Olympics generated some fascinating discussion and responses, including this one from my colleague Ian Bogost.  My post had several different issues mixed together, and I think it’d help to separate them a bit.  So here goes:

Collaboration Versus Competition

Our cultural rituals both reflect and create who we are as individuals and as a culture. I don’t at all think competition should be eliminated. I just think the balance is off, and we would all benefit from more rituals that celebrate collaboration.  As many people pointed out, team sports are a great example of collaboration and a nice integration of collaboration (within a team) and competition (between teams).  We need more pastimes and cultural rituals that celebrate collaboration.  Sure competition has value. But so does collaboration.  Competition is easier to weave a narrative around, and we are inundated by it every day.  I would love to see more Wikipedias and more cultural rituals that celebrate collaboration in all its forms.

Youth Sports and Life Balance

Some people probably choose well when they decided to obsessively dedicate themselves to one pursuit, whether that’s gymnastics or the violin or winning the Intel Science Talent Search.  I get that. I’m glad my kids and I aren’t among those people–folks that focused give up a lot (and get a lot).  For most people, a more moderated participation is wiser.  Sure you need to play the violin every day to get good at it, but not everyone needs to play 8 hours a day like someone prepping for a symphony audition.  Ideally, there should be a spectrum of possible degrees of participation, and individuals should be able to choose a level of intensity that is appropriate for them.

Here’s the problem. It’s not logistically possible to provide lots of different degrees of intensity–we can’t have ten soccer leagues and let you choose on a spectrum from totally laid-back to pre-professional. Our institutions that support youth sports are pushing large numbers of kids towards the super-intense end of the spectrum.  For some people, sport should be a quest for true excellence at all costs. Some people are aspiring professional athletes. For others, sports are a recreational activity that is part of staying healthy and achieving a balanced life.  Our youth sports institutions are pushing too many kids to take the super-intense path.  Our culture is so focused on excellence in all things that a recreational “the kids are here to have fun” philosophy is getting harder to find.

College Sports

If you want to be a professional athlete, you should go try out for a minor league sports team.  If you want to get a college education, it should be free if you work hard and keep up your grades (like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship). Free for everyone.  The system that tries to shoehorn these two things together is hopelessly broken. Right now kids of less economic means dream of earning a free college education through sports. And if they get there, may not actually get the full benefit of that college education because their sports are so time consuming.  Does this make sense?

At some point in history, we made a decision that education should be free through high school and compulsory through age 16.  The demands of our knowledge society are such that I believe it’s time to make college free, for those who work hard and take advantage of the opportunity being given them.  And if you happen to choose to play sports when you get there–fantastic!  But those sports shouldn’t be so demanding that they prevent students from getting the full academic benefit of their college education.


More to come on winners and losers, grading on a curve, and forcing populations.  Thanks to my friends and colleagues for such a super discussion–wow!


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 12, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Thanks Amy. A few thoughts:

    “Our institutions that support youth sports are pushing large numbers of kids towards the super-intense end of the spectrum.”

    I’m not sure this is true. If anything, I think institutions are pushing kids toward the opposite end, toward the minimal intensity. This is as true of violin as it is of sports. Just showing up is worthy of considerable praise. I can’t agree that our culture is really focused on excellence, even if it often deploys that idea in its institutional rhetoric.

    But even if we accept that recreational sport is as worthwhile as professional-grade sport in different contexts, it still involves working against the pressures of the sport, the individual body, and often the team or the environment.

    The issues in college sports are complex and may not be easily looped in to this broader conversation. But it’s worth remembering that while successful Olympic gymnasts and swimmers are essentially professionals and earn large sums from sponsorships, most Olympians are amateurs in the sense the competition has always embraced, and they have to return to their day jobs. Unless their sport is dressage, of course.

  2. August 13, 2012 at 4:45 am

    I keep thinking about Randy Pausch’s dream of playing in the NFL. While he did not achieve that dream (actually, he did get to catch a few passes at a Steelers’ practice), he got a lot out of it. The useful things he learned (teamwork, working hard to get better, physical fitness, responsibility, etc.) had implications beyond professional sports. My guess is that most HS / college athletes fall into that category. The olympic athletes are the 0.01%, so drawing conclusions from their stories might not reflect the culture at large.

    Another issue that occurs to me is the young age that people need to start with sports or musical instruments to make it to the professional level. Tiger Woods started playing golf at 4. At those kind of ages, it is the parents making the decisions, whether it is a sports obsessed father or a tiger mom who values piano. If you read Andre Agassi’s excellent autobiography, you get a good sense of the problems that this can cause. To summarize, his dad forced him to play tennis from an early age. He hated it. In the end, it was the only thing he could do. At least, he was able to have a profitable career with it. His older brother wasn’t so fortunate; he devoted his childhood to tennis, but never had a serious career.

  3. August 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Higher education is free here in Sweden (and elsewhere). We’ve got other problems though. Too many students don’t have what it takes, or, don’t work hard enough. This is slowly lowering the standards.

    Also, when so young people many have degrees, the value of a degree is lowered and the competition for “good jobs” increase, i.e. students now need to compete also with other “weapons” (studying two degrees in parallel, “extra-curricular activities” of different kinds, jobs in the evenings/weekends).

    The large fight here lately has been if higher education should be free also for foreign students (for example coming from poorer countries). It was up until a year ago but isn’t any longer.

    • August 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      Fascinating. Thanks for posting. (And hi!)

      • August 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm

        Hi. Sorry for the shoddy language, don’t know what happened there (and hi!).

        As to the (sometimes) frustration of working in/with the Swedish university system, this blog post might be of interest to you:

        “Can a student fail a Swedish university?”

      • August 14, 2012 at 4:40 pm

        Great post Daniel! The trick as you say is to diagnose the problem cases early enough and be confident in that judgment. Lots of things there that need fixing!

  4. August 14, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    In my early adulthood I was fortunate to hit my stride as an athlete. I made the US Team in whitewater canoe and kayak, consistently stood on the US podium, and ranked in the top-20 globally. My sport had both independent and “collaborative” team events. The pressure to succeed in both was strong.

    As a kid I played team sports like soccer and school-yard baseball. I was clumsy and overheated easily, occasionally vomited on the sidelines. I was consistently the last kid selected by self-assured, self-appointed team captains. I was sometimes bullied.

    I used to regret not discovering canoe and kayak racing earlier. Perhaps I would have had a better shot at ascending the podium in international events. Even though I missed that chance, I learned so much that translates personally and professionally today: the ability to create a long-range plan, define the small approaches, execute with excellence, and being conscious of day-by-day performance in pursuit of that long-term goal.

    The elite-level sports that we see during the Olympics suffer from the broadcasters’ klieg light: the pressure of the culminating dive, sprint, or balance beam routine.

    Sportscasters have a job. They create a high-drama viewing experience. And it is high drama…but most of the television viewers at home don’t get a sense of how much fun it is to train, to be with teammates and development athletes, to coach and mentor younger athletes, and the long, meditative hours we’ve spent alone during workouts. These are the experiences that shape who I am today, but so are the dreadful Tuesday night soccer practices of my youth.

    Most of the highest quality people I collaborate with today and call friends have lonesome childhood stories akin to my sideline puking. I would not trade in that experience. Those unfortunate abdominal contractions strengthen your core in more ways than we realize: they eventually may make us highly empathic collaborators.

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