Is everyone a winner?

Defying the natural order of competition

A debate about winning in sport is like lighting the fuse to a skyrocket: once lit you only have a vague idea where it will end up. In 1865, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll gave us one view. The Dodo asked everyone to run around a lake until they were dry. The Dodo gave no thought to distance or time – much less handicapping! – but, at the end of the “race”, the runners wanted to know who had won. The Dodo’s solution? “Everybody has won and all must have prizes”.

Now Lewis Carroll very likely has something sly in this verdict (the dodo, unfairly, does not enjoy a high, posthumous reputation for wisdom). But it lies at the heart of the debate on sport and a host of other competitive areas. Is it enough to give an award for participation and leave it at that? British journalist, Melanie Phillips has confronted this head-on, for education* – with predictably disputed reactions. Certainly the annual publications of final high school year results tell us that winning has retained its recognition – but, deftly, “losing” has been relegated from those systems where students no longer “fail”, they just “complete” at a different (lower) level. The media do make some efforts to balance the winner coverage with stories of worthy attempts and overcoming adversity – winning of another kind.

In some games, like bridge and chess, recognised by the International Olympics Committee but not, so far including them in the Olympics because they are not “physical”, winning is the aim, but there is also the significance of taking part. The aim of games like this is to win.

What about just taking part? Teaching the value of participation brings us to reflect on the importance of social interactions, even physical ones, and the benefits of physical activity on body and on mind. This brings us back to the “fun” discussion.

And winning? Competition does seem innate, even in play. In every sphere of life we are not all equally good, equally able. If we separate sport out of this scenario, how do we deal with the other parts of life where some excel, many do not, but taking part is respected for its own value?

If we think of the school setting – and that includes the sports setting – teachers will make a competitive game of “spelling bees” or mathematical competitions, recognise those who are very good at these, but also use them to identify those who are not so good and identify where they can be assisted. This is not about winning and losing. Those who win in the classroom may well not be those who win on the playing field, and vice versa. It becomes difficult to draw a line here on competition, and the teaching of resilience: teaching of values in recognising “playing by the rules”, accepting winning and losing with grace, coming to see that our interactions with one another go on afterwards. They do not stop with a “win or loss”. Over time winning and losing become much harder to predict.

Should we have winners and scoring in children’s sport? There is no easy answer. What we can say is that the world is a very competitive place, not just in sport or study or business, but in its make-up – from trees and plants competing for light and nutrition to animals competing for habitat. “Winning” in this respect does matter.

We struggle with the debate on winning and keeping score. But abandoning that does not look as attractive as managing it, at least in sport, to focus on its benefits in encouraging us to try harder.**

* Melanie Phillips, 1998, All Must Have Prizes, Time Warner Books UK


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