The Name of the Game

To the winner go the spoils. This phrase was coined in the 1800’s to refer to the policy of giving government jobs to friends who supported a winning candidate. Its common use is more closely related to winning prizes in a competition of some sort, although it has connotations of pillaging in a battle. If you think about it, though, it is a real statement with a huge amount of truth at its core. It talks about the drive in the human spirit and the motivation to succeed in any endeavor. It is also something that is being bled out of the American spirit.

I have spent the past couple of days coaching a team in a competition at work. The team is participating in a Jeopardy-like contest of technical knowledge against other teams from other markets in our division. This is the third year we have participated and we are doing well. I mention this because the reason the guys even sign up for this is not because they feel that simply participating will bolster their self esteem. They do not do it just for the feeling of competition for competition’s sake. They do it because they want to win. They do it because they want—in their own words—to kill kill kill.

In my youth, I participated in Pee Wee football. I was not the star quarter back or receiver; in fact I spent most of my time on the bench. I did get to play some however, just enough to learn that I didn’t like getting tackled. There were several on the team that did not get to play, unless our team was so far ahead on the scoreboard that we couldn’t lose if we walked off the field. Some kids were disappointed that they did not play a bigger part in the win, but we loved winning. When we won, we got treats. When we lost, we just went home.

They kids who could play well played often. Those who did not warmed the bench. This was the strategy the coach employed and it worked. We had a good season. We got treats.

Today, kids must play in every game, no matter how good or bad they are. Parents have insisted that their little Johnny simply must play or it isn’t fair to him. Besides, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, it’s how you play the game that counts. If you keep score, then the team that loses will suffer a loss of self esteem, and that has to be the worst possible thing that could happen to them. Isn’t it?

What can a kid take from that kind of competition? That effort is meaningless and as long as you show up, you get to play the game no matter what your skill level is? How does that serve them in the real world? In the workplace today, there is no shortage of young people who believe that as long as they show up (and not even showing up on time) they deserve a paycheck with regular periodic raises. Seriously, one new hire at my office asked on the first day when they would get their first raise and they had not even begun work.

When kids don’t learn that with great effort comes great reward, they don’t develop an appreciation for hard work. They never develop a work ethic. As long as they think that scores do not matter; as long as they think that by showing up, they get to play, they will never learn to set realistic goals with a plan to achieve them. We need to resume teaching kids the true meaning of competition. When you compete, you do it for one reason: to win.

My team is competing for the honor of bragging rights and the honor of representing the division in the national games in January. If they didn’t want to win, we wouldn’t even be here. That is the competitive spirit, and that is why they are the best at what they do and that is why they will succeed.

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