Why Competition Can Impede Novice Athlete Development & Learning from Other Sports
By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development, National Coach
Let me preface this article by saying that I love competition as much as the next man or woman and also believe that it benefits children, but only when they show an aptitude, are willing and enthusiastic, and have been adequately prepared by their coaches.
We often hear the maxim that, “it is not important whether you win or lose, only that you play the game.” But unfortunately modern society, and even the school system, places tremendous pressure on kids to win in sports and score high on exams. Another sports maxim gives credit to, “the man in the arena…,” but what of the child or athlete who does not want to compete – who simply enjoys sports for fun and exercise?
This begs the questions, how important is competition in sports, and is it better to simply perform well or must we score high? The Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin on the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894. This indicates that the purpose of sport is to run faster, jump higher, and become stronger, but is this true? Isn’t the purpose of sport to provide an active and healthy lifestyle that builds character and improves one’s quality of life?
Coubertin went on to state, “These three words represent a program of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible.” But this is very different to the competitive nature of the three words, since now he is talking about the moral beauty and aesthetics of sport. The other less formal, but equally well known motto introduced by Coubertin was, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!” So now we are back to the concept that simply participating in a particular sport or the Olympics is more important than winning, but try telling that to an Olympic coach or athlete whose income is dependent on producing medals.
To better appreciate the relationship between enjoying a sport, for the sheer beauty of that sport, and competing, we will start with a sport such as archery and then look at judo. As with judo, archery is both a martial art and an Olympic sport. It is not a conventional Asian martial art as most people see martial arts, but as with fencing, the javelin, and discus throwing, it is most definitely a sport derived from early military training. As with the bow and arrow, archery possesses a style and beauty all its own, so is therefore an art form and a sport.
To teach or learn archery, it is imperative to first master good form which is no easy task. Unlike shooting a gun, the challenge in archery is to achieve a high degree of precision while handling the heavy poundage of the bow. Where an Olympic pistol shooter is dealing with a trigger pull of less than 2 pounds and shooting at 25 meters, the Olympic archer must contend with a 40 to 46-pound draw weight and still hit a very small target at 70 meters. It is equivalent to a golfer trying to sink a hole-in-one from 80 yards out. The only way to do this is through years of practice, a detailed understanding of body mechanics, and developing a solid, repeatable form.
Teaching the basic form for archery and the bio-mechanics that will be the foundation of all future training and development begins at a relatively short range with a bow of low poundage and shooting at a blank bale. This means there is no target on the 3-foot wide stand, just a blank surface. Why no target, you may ask? Isn’t the objective of archery to hit the target?
Archery coaches have long understood that as soon as you place a target on the stand, everyone will shoot for the gold ten ring or bullseye. It is human nature. The reason this is detrimental for the novice archer is that it takes the archer’s mind off of developing good form and makes them focus on hitting the 10 or X ring. Similarly, if there are other students on the line and one of them shoots a bullseye, then anyone not shooting bulls-eyes will either feel inadequate or try harder to hit the bull. The result is a downward spiral with all conscious effort that should be directed to improving form and gaining a “feel” for archery, lost to the competitive nature of the sport.
If this was a group of high school students participating in an entry level Olympic Archery in Schools (OAS) program, permitted to shoot targets right from the start, some would feel immediate gratification by luckily hitting the bullseye, while others would be discouraged by missing the target altogether. But the entire group will have suffered by not learning or focusing on good form. It is therefore up to the coach to get the students learning good form before distracting them with scoring on targets.
This does not apply only to beginners. Quite often, national level champions will begin a training session by shooting at a blank bale so that they can focus on their form and develop the correct neuro-muscle memory and feel before moving on to shooting for score.
So how does this apply to other sports and in particular judo? After covering basic dojo etiquette and breakfalling, the primary role of the judo instructor is to teach the new students basic judo techniques. With this, the emphasis is on teaching good form, posture, balance, and execution. A student lacking in good posture and balance will have trouble doing throws, often evidenced by falling over or not being able to execute the throw cleanly.
Now, take this new judo student who has been coming to judo for a few weeks and has learned four or five throws, and you throw them into a hard randori session or local tournament. What is the result? The student is fearful of being thrown, stiffens up, stiff-arms their opponent, tries to use strength instead of technique, and achieves nothing. Even worse, if this is the first competition for a little kid, and he or she gets thrown hard, they may end up crying, hating judo, and quitting.
We have all been at junior judo tournaments where all too many little kids end up in tears, and all too often they were pushed into competing by their peers, parents or coaches. We have also seen parents and coaches cheering them on to “beat the other kid” like this was the most important thing in their world. What happened to holding off for a year or two until the kid really knows and understands judo, has been trained for competition (if he or she so wishes), and is then permitted to compete just for the fun of competing? What happened to the parents and coaches who should be quietly supportive of their kids and not pushing them to “beat other kids?”
I was recently coaching one of my judoka at a junior tournament where the other coach spent three solid minutes yelling instructions to his player, while I sat quietly watching my student. As all certified judo coaches should know, it is not permitted to yell to your competitor during play, only during the matte-hajime breaks. It is also required that coaches stay in the chair and not address the referee, and yet here was this coach bouncing up and down and yelling incessantly. At the end of the match his player came off the mat crying because she had lost, and mine came off content with her performance. But even when my players lose they do not cry, they are taught just to learn from the experience. They are also not coached to “beat the other player,” only to do their best, attack relentlessly, and try for the big Ippon win. The challenge is to execute a clean technique on an unwilling opponent, not to “beat the other kid.” Winning is just a byproduct of doing good judo.
So a word of advice for coaches and parents – let your kids enjoy judo, archery, or any sport without putting undue pressure on them to compete. Judo instructors should place importance on teaching kids good Kodokan judo, not competition grip fighting and tactics. Youngsters will gravitate to competition in their own time, often when they see their friends and other club members having fun and winning medals. Yes, winning medals is important in sports, but as a reward for training and effort, not for beating some other kid. It is up to the parents and coaches to keep things in perspective and to ensure that their junior judoka grow into healthy, happy, well rounded athletes with an elevated sense of respect and sportsmanship.
Finally, even though Professor Kano promoted sports and was the first Asian member of the Olympic organizing committee, he was quite concerned about the effect competitive sport would have on judo. He had developed judo as a form of physical fitness, recreation, self defense, as an art and as a lifestyle. The competitive side of judo was only a small and relatively unimportant part of his grand plan. Unfortunately, human nature and society drive people to compete in all things including school, work, games, sports, and even how we drive. But it is okay to just enjoy an activity or sport for the sheer pleasure of participation. It is not essential that everything becomes a competition, and in some respects, competition can actually detract from the joy and beauty of sport. There is nothing uglier than a red-faced coach or parent screaming at a 6- or 7- year old who is just trying to have fun.