Do Sports Teach Cooperation or Competition?

Sports are by nature competitive, but recently, the over-competitive nature youth sports seem to have taken on has led to cause for concern. The issue has caused debate over competition vs. cooperation. In this debate there appear to be three sides: those that believe competition is inherently bad; those that view competition as a normal, acceptable part of American society; and those that are somewhere in between.

The Case Against Sports Competition

Author Alfie Kohn is one who is very outspoken against competition, going so far as to say competition is inherently bad. He points out that in a competition, only one wins while the rest fail. In “The Case Against Competition,” (1) Kohn argues that competition leads children to define themselves by the outcome, tying their self- esteem up with their ability to beat others. He further argues that competition is less productive than cooperation and that research has shown competitive children to be less empathetic and less generous than others. Competition causes anxiety, interferes with learning, and causes children to view others as obstacles to their success (1). Competition restricts participation and emphasizes winning. A “win-at- all-costs” mentality can lead to a devaluation of honesty and fair play (2). Furthermore, according to professor Daniel Frankl, competition only benefits the few skilled participants. In most sporting events, it is the skilled minority who will have the most contact with the ball and the most game experience even if all participants have the same amount of playing time (3). Cooperation, on the other hand, helps build self-esteem, helps kids learn to communicate, builds trust, and does not depend on the ability to beat others (1).

Competition as a Healthy Part of Adolescences

On the opposite side of the debate are those who view competition as a healthy part of American society. They argue that placing kids in a competitive situation such as sports helps prepare them for an adult life in our capitalistic society that thrives on competition. Competition is a normal part of human nature and part of everyday life (2). Other arguments supporting competitive sports are that they provide challenges, help kids develop skills, teach discipline, and teach you to get along with others (4). Of course opponents of competition will argue that a competitive environment is not needed for these experiences. Cooperative activities also teach youth about discipline and cooperation while helping them build skills in a challenging environment.

Introducing Competition in Childhood

The third side of this debate is the more moderate, and maybe more realistic side. The argument for this side contends that as long as competition does not get out of hand and take on a “win-at-all-costs” mentality, a little competition can’t be all that bad. Daniel F. Perkins, a professor at Penn State, says that, “Competition in itself is not bad. It can serve as a means of social comparison, necessary for adolescents to see how they are unique from others” (2). His advice is to introduce competition gradually while focusing more on mastery and cooperation during childhood. The gradual shift toward competition will allow children to build skills, participate fully, and focus on playing rather than winning (2). Once they have a solid foundation and have developed skills, self-competence, and an understanding of the game and how it is played, then competition can be introduced.

As you see, the question of competition vs. cooperation has many sides. It is important that you consider all of the possible outcomes of competition before you put your child in a competitive situation. If he or she has not reached the level of maturity or skill that is required to handle a specific competitive situation, it may be best to find a team where the focus is not on winning but on personal growth and development.

Further Reading on Sports Competition

The Case Against Competition – by Alfie Kohn

Making Youth Sports a Positive Experience: Spectators – from Penn State University

Should Elementary School Children Take Part in Inter-School Sports Competition – by Daniel Frankl, PhD

Cooperation, Competition, and Kids – from Penn State University


(1) Kohn, A. (1987). The Case Against Competition. Retrieved November 20, 2004 from

(2) Perkins, D. F. (2000). Making Youth Sports a Positive Experience: Spectators. Retrieved November 11, 2004 from pdf

(3) Frankl, D. (2003). Should Elementary School Children Take Part in Inter-School Sports Competition? Retrieved November 19, 2004 from

(4) Kowalski, K. M. (2003). The competitive edge. Current Health 1, 26, 17-19. Retrieved January 20, 2006 from ProQuest database.

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