From the vault: This article was originally posted in February of 2015.
I had a talk yesterday with my 5yo about the difference between Play and Competition. I grew up in a very sports-oriented competitive family. I’m pretty sure besmirching the good name of Competition is going to upset some of my family (my sister), but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Now some of this is going to be semantics, so let’s not get overly concerned about our precious words. By Play I simply mean engaging in a game or activity for fun. By Competition I mean engaging in a game for the sole purpose of winning. You can Play to win. And you can have fun in competing. But for the sake of this article, Competition will designate when the playfulness has been removed from the game.
I’ve been watching my boys play a lot lately and I’ve been seeing the contrast between Play and Competition. My 2yo just plays. There’s very little competition in his play. The 5yo competes. Sometimes he is more playful, but often if he is not winning, he doesn’t see value in the game.
For example, if we are all playing Ninja Turtles (which is always), the boys are often play fighting against me and the boys get to win. And if the 5yo goes up against the 2yo, the 2yo will allow the 5yo to win because the 2yo is playing. But if for some reason we try to make it so that the 5yo loses, he gets angry because, while we were playing, he was competing.
The same thing will happen if we are playing soccer. There are times when I let my 5yo win and he really enjoys the game. But then there are times when I decide he needs to be challenged and I win. This can often result in anger and tears. This is because he wasn’t playing. He was competing.*
The way I see it, Play doesn’t mean you aren’t competitive. I grew up playing sports and had a poster on my wall (shown above) of a kid in Baseball gear and the poster said, “I play to win.” I stared at those words every night as I fell asleep. And I still have that attitude. In fact, I still have that poster. But it’s “I PLAY to win.” Not “I COMPETE.” I think this is something I truly learned when I became an improviser and learned to be more playful.
So now when I play a game, whether it’s a sport, or a board game, or anything at all, I play my hardest. Nobody wants an opponent who isn’t trying. I play to win. But I do so with the understanding that playing the game is more important than winning the game. Because as soon as the joy of game is lost, you’re no longer playing. You’re just competing.
*I should note that my 5yo isn’t as bad of a sport as this article makes him seem. These are the extreme cases, but often he does a very good job of being a good sport.
UPDATE: My kids are 9 and 6 now. The 9yo is still UBER competitive but is learning how to handle the frustrations of losing. There are times when he will play with his little brother in a way where little brother gets to “win”. Other times, his competitive streak kicks in and there’s no stopping him. The 6yo is gaining an interest in competitive sports but still sort of backs away from direct competition. Every day I try to make “play” the focus in our activities.