The case for competition

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This reference is used to annotate "I would never send my kids to school" (2017) by Piotr Wozniak

Alfie Kohn is almost always right

Alfie Kohn is a natural genius of child psychology. His insights come decades ahead of popular thinking about education. I nearly always agree with Alfie. His thinking is deeply behavioristic. One of my biggest disagreements with Alfie is his stance on competitiveness.

In his text from three decades ago, "The Case Against Competition", Alfie provides a long list of claims, which are all correct. However, he failed to mention examples where competition is welcome and where its effects are excellent. This reminds me again of the old soup problem. We may all know a few cases of healthy competition, and extend it to an over-generalization: "competition is great in education". In a similar fashion, we observe winners of the game of schooling and conclude wrongly that "school is good".

Alfie writes:

Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it’s obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn’t build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten

Competition can be healthy

My claims about competition are conditional. Competition can be a blessing in development. However, it must be based on a healthy spirit of co-operation for the greater common good. The whole list of Alfie's complaints may be nullified if we can marry competition with cooperative approach to self-improvement.

I often organize mini-competitions for kids, e.g. running rounds around a sports field. I have now been doing that for five decades! I started from organizing mini-competitions for my peers at school. My competitions at school would have a wide span: from chess tournaments, to boxing tournaments (with real boxing gloves). In those early days, I liked to organize competitions that I could win. However, today I know that the most important design component is that in a good competition, everyone is a winner! For example, in a running competition, everyone gets tired, everyone gets sweaty, everyone does his best. This way, everyone benefits. The wins are sweet, but the last arrival is praised and celebrated no less. Competitions do not need to be zero-sum games. Exercise is good. Trying to win is good.

Marathon camaraderie

I like to compete in marathons. At my present 93kg and with my habit of running barefoot, I tend to finish with slower runners. We often meet at different competitions and stay in touch in-between. Sometimes we run together. We love to compete against each other. We hardly ever know who won a marathon well ahead of us. The winners finish their meals by the time we show up at the finish line. We pay more attention to compete against each other with those who hover at the similar level. There are always fun stories and excuses in the shape of injuries, accidents, job and family complications, etc. Some two decades ago, before I fully understood my physiology, I would always run a few percent better in competition. It was hard to explain. It was psychological. These days, I do better when I run at my best circadian time, in my favorite weather conditions, on my best routes, etc. But competitions always add spice. Most of all, they help the discipline of preparations, and provide a great framework for planning creative vacations or spells of particularly hard work. The schedule of sports training provides a fantastic framework for all other aspects of productive life. They synchronize sleep with the sun, and provide a degree of necessary timing discipline that makes all activities click in place (see: Planning a perfect productive day without stress).

Skill factoring

One of my personal inventions in reference to competitions was skill factoring. Before a competition, players obtain target scores that reflect their past performance. For example, a player who scored 3 goals in the past football matches may aim at scoring 4 in order to win. He can thus officially beat the actual winner who scores 15 and used to score 15 due to his superiority. However, the weakest player needs to watch another player who used to score 8, because the latter's getting 10 would come on top. The winner who used to score 15, may need to repeat 15:8:3 in order to recapture his title. Those numbers I actually took from an actual competition, in which the weakest player won the competition. The top scorer was Mike Kubiak with 15, but he had to concede his crown on the day. The winning player has also been mentioned at SuperMemo Guru but would rather remain anonymous (at this moment). On that day I happened to come last, but I had my wins too. Skill factoring makes it possible for everyone to do his best. On level turf, everyone can be a winner.


That competitive spirit seems to be pretty helpful to an individual when competing with one's own accomplishments. I like to keep records and statistics of my work, learning, achievement, etc. Competing with my past self is also a great self-improvement strategy. In particular, I love challenging all my sports records from youth. Each success adds to the sense that aging can be fun. If this competitiveness is conducted with respect for health and enjoyable, it cannot be bad.

In the text on reward diversity, I remark how competitiveness at high school or in college turned out beneficial later in life. Naturally, I cannot be sure that this past competitive spirit didn't hurt someone on the way. For each Bill Gates, there are millions of less successful cases, of which many turn out pretty unhappy, as observed by Alfie Kohn.

Perhaps it is in part a cultural thing? The all-American way of competing leads to many losers? In my competitive ways, everyone is a winner! It is all about good friendship, benevolence, and healthy self-improvement goals. Don't we all love when martial artists hug each lovingly after a bloody fight?

Competitions are great as long as they serve all competitors

Competition in education

When it comes to education, competition may be less welcome. It is harder to measure the outcomes. Grades are an awful measure of performance. Standardized tests are ok as long as they are voluntary. I discovered mnemonic techniques while organizing memorization competitions. My memory was never bad, but I quickly noticed how it can be improved with visualizations. There was no bad blood in my competitions. They were always a good incentive to improve.

I enjoyed winning some competitions at school (e.g. reading competition at the age of 10, or the chemistry contest at 14). However, losing was not bad either. I failed in a biology contest at the age of 17, but I loved the study of biochemistry with the thought that it would lead me to a free ticket to college. Hard work was great. Losing was not bad. I excused my failure by saying: "Who cares about earthworms. Gluconeogenesis is more important".


Alfie Kohn is essentially right about competition at school. It is largely destructive for the self-esteem of most students:

One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn’t permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can’t learn from one another. Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they’re supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what she’s doing. The result: Performance declines

Perhaps there is an analogy between (1) the risks of digital media, videogames, addictions, etc. and (2) the risks of a pathological approach to competition? When there is a diversity of reward, a happy mind can make the most of the good side of a competition without seeking a boost to self-esteem?

Here I hypothesize:

The key to a healthy competition is a healthy mind developed in conditions of reward diversity

Competition may have a predominantly bad influence. However, for me, it was a driver of progress. We cannot reject a good tool just because in wrong contexts it turns out bad.


Quoted excerpts come from the following reference:

Title: The Case Against Competition

Author: Alfie Kohn

Year: 1987

Backlink: Reward diversity in preventing addictions