Competition–Transcending the Win/Loss Mentality

competition growth mindset Nov 14, 2023
Competition-Transcending the Win/Loss Mentality

By Rob Chilton

Competition.  In the context of music education, the word alone often elicits polarized reactions.  Our relationships with competition are often deeply personal and complicated.  Whether you are for or against it, the fact remains it exists.  As educators, we have the challenging task of understanding our own feelings on competition while providing impressionable youth safe passage through it.   Like many of us, my relationship with competition has changed over the years.   My hope is that by combining research-based evidence with my own experience-based beliefs I can inspire contemplation and reflection that increase the health and vitality of our relationships with competition.  There is a lot to unpack and we won't cover it all today.

Before we begin, I'd like to express how difficult it is to talk about competition.  When discussing it, I often labor over my sentences and struggle to compose my thoughts in ways that are genuine and accessible with the least amount of bias.  It is possible that while reading this article you'll find particular thoughts or statements not in alignment with your own current beliefs–and that's OK!  Our diversity of knowledge and experiences are what make us unique and I encourage you to share your feedback or personal anecdotes as we begin a series of articles I have planned to dive deep into the recesses of competition.  Visit our CONTACT page to share.

What is Competition?

Scientifically defined, competition is when two or more parties strive for a common goal which cannot be shared and where one's gain is the other's loss.  In nature, animals compete over water, food, mates, and other resources.  Humans also compete for resources, though when essential needs are met, competition may also arise over the pursuit of wealth, power, and recognition.

The Reasons Vs. the Value of Competition

In 1994, Robert E. Franken and Douglas E. Brown of the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology wrote that some of the reasons people compete are the following:

1) Competition can allow for people to satisfy their need to win
2) Competition can provide people the opportunity or reason for improving their performance
3) Competition can motivate people to put forth greater effort than without competition 

Aside from the above, common justifications discussed in our medium include:

4) Competition is exciting and fun
5) Sports compete, so should we
6) Life is competition, we must prepare our students

I believe that #2, competition provides the opportunity or reason for improving performance, is one of the most common reasons and the one I utilize.  We'll discuss some of the others in a future post. 

Still, none of the above addresses the value of competition, only reasons for competition–and reason and value are two different things.  In my opinion, if we are going to include competition in music education–and it should be noted that there is often some degree of local or independent choice to the extent to which we do or do not–I believe the true value to be found in competition is in teaching our students appropriate goal-setting, work systems, reflection capabilities, and emotional fortitude which they can use in other areas of their lives through a process I call the Healthy Cycle of Growth.

The Healthy Cycle of Growth

You can turn every competitive cycle into a healthy, well-balanced, and responsible learning experience with the following steps:

Step 1 - The Rules

Every competition in life, whether a marching contest, regional audition, science fair, or job interview has a set of rules.  Like a game, we must first understand the rules before we play.  Discuss the rules of the game with your students and answer the following or similar questions with them:

  • What is the specific competition(s) we are engaging in?
  • How will the competition be measured or scored?
  • How much time do you have to prepare for the competition(s)?

Step 2 - The “Preflection”

The “preflection” is a reflective process on our past outcomes or results that allow us to think rationally about our achievements before engaging in new goal-setting.  Ask your students the following or similar questions:

  • What are your most previous and relevant results?
  • In what areas would you like to improve?
  • What was the one thing you wished you had done better in your last competition?

Step 3 - The Goal-Setting

After establishing the rules and examining past performance, guide your students to set reasonable and achievable goals.

  • What is your desired result?
  • A goal that is too high will often result in frustrations or abandonment of the goal.  A goal that is too low will be too easily achieved and may lead to disappointment or apathy.
  • Depending on the individual, I try to guide my students to set goals that are 80% to 120% of what I perceive is their full potential.

Step 4 - The Systems

Goals are where we want to go, but systems are how we get there.  They’re the gas in our fuel tanks.  Stop putting fuel in the tank and you eventually stop moving.  Help your students develop systems with the following or similar questions:

  • What routines can you put in place to ensure success?  (Example–practice first thing in the morning or right after school before getting distracted)
  • How often will you need to practice in order to achieve your goal?
  • How long should each practice session be?
  • What type of attitude do you want to exhibit towards practice?
  • What other things can you do regularly to support reaching your goal?  (Exampleeating better, sleeping more, less social media, less gaming, etc.)

Note–Children often struggle with setting appropriate goals and systems because they lack experience and misjudge their abilities–both on the spectrum of too high and too low.  For this reason, I recommend engaging your students in a written assignment for steps 1-4.  For example, when I prepare my students for All-Region auditions, I set aside one entire class period or lesson block to have my students write out their answers to the first four steps so I can review and give proper guidance.

Step 5 - The Journey 

Mostly due to inexperience, children are often wholly unprepared for the emotional depth of the journey.  At the start, they often romanticize the “win” without putting forth enough effort, sometimes even ignoring the systems they put in place.  Then, somewhere in the first quarter of the journey they have the realization that achieving their goal is going to be much harder than they expected.

Image credit: John Saddington

Over the years, I started presenting my students with this image before embarking on a new journey.  It helps prepare them for the inevitable “dark swamp” they’re likely to encounter.  It also helped them find comic relief in their most difficult moments as they would often come to me seeking guidance, to which I would respond, “are you in the dark swamp of despair?”  This was usually followed by a smile or sigh of relief that would allow us to break down their perceived insurmountable obstacles.

Step 6 - The Results 

Assuming we set responsible goals, our results are mostly a culmination of our dedication to our systems and the quality of our efforts.  Prior to the presentation of results:

  • Discuss what are appropriate displays of emotion.
  • What does it look like to be respectfully joyful or appropriately disappointed?
  • How do we appropriately handle failure?

Step 7 - The Reflection

The reflection is one of the most valuable and often overlooked parts of the process.  Engage your students in the following:

  • Did we achieve our goal?
  • If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of it all, what would you say?
  • Were your results consistent with your effort?  If yes, how?  If not, why?

Transcending the Win/Loss Mentality

As the saying goes, “it’s the journey, not the destination.”  However, I find this phrase difficult for most children and teens to understand.  We can help them comprehend the meaning of this phrase by explaining that the wisdom gained from the process (journey) is more valuable than the result (destination).  Or, the lessons learned, whether joyful or difficult, are worth more than any ranking or trophy.  (PS - This is why the reflection component is so important!)

Another thing that makes the journey more valuable than the destination is the distance traveled.  Not to be misconstrued as anything other than an observation, in a competition where the first place is the same for everyone, variables such as pre-existing experience, skill, and resources often put competitors at different starting points.  It’s important to consider the start and finish when trying to objectively measure growth. 

Finally, transcending the win/loss mentality occurs when we see the value in what we’ve learned and the distance we’ve traveled as greater than that of the placement or result.  Then, apply it moving forward.  The application of knowledge gained is the ultimate win.  In time, the consistent application of the healthy cycle of growth will yield greater and greater achievement.

Beware of the Arrival Fallacy

The arrival fallacy is the mistaken belief that once a goal, achievement, or certain level of recognition is attained that lasting completeness or happiness will be achieved.  Achievement and recognition do bring temporary satisfaction, but the danger is when glow fades.  We may feel empty or even depressed.  Oftentimes this leads us to seek even higher achievement or recognition in order to fill the void of our escalating desires.  Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for us to put extreme pressure on ourselves and others in hot pursuit of our next goal.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have high expectations and continually push ourselves for higher achievement.  Growth is an essential part of life.  Instead, I’m encouraging regular reflection on why we seek success to ensure our foundation is rooted in the desire for learning and growth.  Mindsets rooted in learning and growth are more resilient to change and setbacks and are more likely to find joy in the daily grind.  When we base our happiness on future outcomes, we miss the opportunity to be mindful of the present and find contentment–a feeling of quiet happiness and satisfaction–in the process.

Over the years, I’ve found myself victim to the arrival fallacy many times, something I plan to discuss more in the future.  My most profound realization was that by placing my happiness in future achievement, I was giving myself justification to ignore my lack of contentment with the present.  In the back of my mind I was always thinking, “I’ll be happy when” instead of asking, “why am I not happier now?” 

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The Most Noble Form of Competition

Competing with ourselves is the most noble form of competition.  When we compete against ourselves, we win not by beating others, but by beating our former selves.  If we are going to engage in ranked competition against others, let us consider doing so with the purpose of measuring our work against those we respect and admire as we aspire to achieve greater forms of ourselves. 

In conclusion, imagine a world where everyone is just trying to be the best version of themselves, where lessons learned are the real trophies, and the distance traveled is more important than the destination.

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About the author:

Rob Chilton is the creator and owner of Readymade Music, LLC and its content. Previously, Chilton was a middle school band director from 2007-2021. His most recent teaching position was the Head Band Director at Killian Middle School in Lewisville, Texas from 2014-2021.

Under his direction, the Killian Honors Band was named the 2018 Texas Music Educators Association CC Honor Band and performed at the annual 2018 TMEA Clinic/Convention. In 2019, the Killian Honors Band was invited to and performed at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago. Additionally, the Killian Honors Band was named a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors Project in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Chilton is a graduate of Southern Methodist University where he had the opportunity to study music education under the tutelage of Lynne Jackson and Brian Merrill. During his years as a middle school band director, Chilton continued his professional growth under the guidance of his primary clinicians, John Benzer and Brian Merrill.

Chilton’s mission for Readymade Music is to promote the overall well-being of music education and support school music teachers by providing solutions to help make teaching music more efficient and inspirational while increasing engagement for 21st century learners.

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