Let’s Contest the Meaning of Competition by David Light Shields

As I write this, the 2012 Summer Olympics are just getting underway.  It’s a pleasant break from the other epic contest that’s been dominating our TV sets for the past several weeks – the ad battles between the U.S. presidential candidates!  It certainly is an opportune moment to reflect on that virtually omnipresent process that engulfs so much of our lives – competition.  We rely on competition as a central dynamic in our businesses, our politics, our legal system, our schools, and our games.

I’ve been struck recently by the frequency with which competition is mentioned in a variety of educational texts, usually in a quick, casual manner and almost always with an implied negative connotation.  For example, I was reviewing the introductory text that we use in our Educational Foundations course and noticed that it mentions how teachers sometime become “competitive” with other teachers, to their detriment.  Social and educational critics often mention how the “hidden curriculum” of schools teach students to value competition, apparently at the expense of cooperation.  Of course, the most explicit and detailed criticism of competition is presented by Alfie Kohn in his APA-Award-winning book, No Contest: The Case against Competition (1992).

I am far from unsympathetic to the views expressed by many of the critics of competition.  Put people in contests and you are likely to find an escalation of prejudices.  Pit groups against each other, and you are likely to create or augment hostilities.  Economists may tell us that competition creates lean and innovative companies.  Perhaps.  But it can just as easily promote deception and cheating, false advertising, compromised safety standards, and the like.  On balance, does competition lead to better politics, better businesses, and better education?  Does it promote a more ethical society, a more moral citizenry?

In this brief op-ed, I would like to suggest that debates about the value and utility of competition invariably miss the mark because they are based on a muddy view of competition.  First, let me acknowledge that many writers try to distinguish productive from unproductive forms of competition.  They do so by labeling competition that leads to negative outcomes with such terminology as hyper-competition, destructive competition, zealous competition, and so on.  The problem is that these terms are either tautologies (competition is bad when it is bad competition) or seem to suggest that competition becomes problematic simply when it becomes too competitive.

What we need is a way to distinguish qualitatively between different forms of contesting, of which competition is only one.  I believe that much of our confusion around competition relates to the fact that we use the term to designate two quite different, quite distinct processes.  Both processes are modes of contesting.  If we are to advance in our thinking about competition, we need to make some linguistic and conceptual distinctions that are often not made.

My launching point is this:  contests are not self-interpreting.  Their meaning and significance is not given by the contest structure itself.  Rather, the meaningfulness of a contest is determined by how people think about it.  Drawing from the cognitive-linguistic tradition of research that dates back to the pioneering work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (e.g., Metaphors We Live By), I believe that the abstract notion of “contest,” like other abstract ideas and concepts, is invariably filtered through metaphorical interpretation.  In other words, people use conceptual metaphors to “make sense” out of contesting.

There are two basic conceptual metaphors that are available to make sense of contests.  First, contests can be interpreted through a “contest-is-war” metaphor.  While the conceptual metaphor is often embraced unconsciously, the contest-is-war metaphor underlies many common ways of talking about contests.  For example, in reference to two sport teams, commentators may say:

This is an offensive shootout.
They dodged a bullet.
There was great blocking at the point of attack.
Team X has a lot of weapons.
Team Y is still very much alive.

Expressions such as these make immediate sense to listeners because we are all familiar with the contest-is-war metaphor even if we haven’t explicitly reflected on it.

The second conceptual metaphor available to interpret contests is the “contest-is-partnership” metaphor.  While not as culturally dominant as the contest-is-war metaphor, we can easily make sense of expressions such as these:

The teams brought out the best in each other.
Ali needed Frazier before his true greatness could be realized.
They turned defeat into victory.
Success cannot be measured by the scoreboard.
They all had a good time.

Expressions such as these draw from an underlying metaphor that points to the mutual benefit that can come from contesting.  Contests are a kind of partnership in which the dynamic opposition and tension that indwell the process of trying to outperform opponents serves as a catalyst, a stimulant, for bringing out one’s best.  Viewed through the contest-is-partnership metaphor, contests provide a context for an enjoyable striving for excellence.

Interestingly, the etymology of the word competition (from the Latin, com-petere, meaning “to strive” or “to seek” with) aligns with the contest-as-partnership metaphor.  Competition is a striving with opponents; it is seeking with them.  What is being sought?  Competition is a mutual seeking of excellence through striving to meet or exceed the challenge provided by the opponent.  Competition, when true to its etymology, is designed to serve excellence.

In sports, competition is designed to bring out physical excellence and the exhilaration, excitement and joy that come from pushing one’s boundaries toward peak performance.

In economics, competition is designed to serve excellence in production and distribution through maximizing innovation, reducing waste, and streamlining processes.

In politics, competition is designed to promote excellence in public service by bringing out the best policies and holding officials accountable to the ballot box.

Of course, contests often fail to achieve these lofty goals.  In fact, they probably fail more often than they succeed.  The quest for excellence in a sport contest can degenerate into an egoistic battle for claims to dominance or superiority.  The contesting for market share by companies can devolve into misleading advertising, shoddy after-sale support, compromised safety standards, market manipulations, and so on.  Politicians, rather than debating the merits of genuinely-held beliefs and policy-commitments, can contest through misrepresentations of opponents and other “dirty tricks” of campaigning.

One problem is that we do not have a word in English to name the process of contesting when it is animated by the contest-is-war metaphor.  So let’s invent one:  decompetition.  The prefix “de-” simply means “reverse of” or “opposite of.”  If genuine competition involves striving with opponents for excellence, decompetition is striving against them in a battle for dominance or extrinsic rewards.

Decompetition is not just too much competition.  It is not “hyper-competition” or any of the other labels that imply too much of a good thing.  It is qualitatively different.  It is its own distinct process with a different set of goals and motivations from those that characterize genuine competition.  Elsewhere, my colleagues and I have elaborated on the numerous distinguishing characteristics between true competition and decompetition, but they all arise from the conceptual metaphor that gives a sense of structure, meaning, direction, and purpose to the contest.  Depending on whether you see the contest as fundamentally a partnership or a war will change how you conceptualize your relationship with opponents, how you relate to the officials, where you find the primary sense of value, the strategies you will adopt, the types of emotions likely to be elicited, how you conceptualize the “ideal” contest, and so on.

To avoid a common misunderstanding, let me emphasize that the conceptual metaphors that underlie competition and decompetition are not necessarily paralleled in overt language.  A person who thinks through the contest-as-war metaphor may never talk directly about “battling” opponents.  Perhaps more oddly, a person who thinks through the “contest-as-partnership” metaphor may, in fact, use the language of battle or war; but it is a language of play; of gest.  They can still be animated by the partnership understanding.  What is critical is not the language used, but the way of conceptualizing the fundamental relationship that is at work in contests.

Most social science research on “competition” has found that it has negative outcomes, such as reduced learning, lower productivity, increased hostility, and so on.  But the research is limited by the fact that it has failed to distinguish competition from decompetition.  Similarly, the vocabulary of competition and decompetition is necessary if we are to identify when – under what specific circumstances – contests can be productive and helpful and when they are going to degenerate and become counterproductive.

Of course, at root, the distinction between competition and decompetition is not purely descriptive.  It is moral.  The metaphors that animate competition and decompetition reflect different approaches to human relationships.  Are we, fundamentally, thrown into existence, pitted against one another in a cut-throat battle for recognition and supremacy?  Must my gain imply your loss?  Those are views associated with the contest-is-war metaphor.  In contrast, the contest-as-partnership metaphor reflects a deep appreciation of human interdependency.  It reflects a moral belief that even when we are pitted against each other, there is common ground; mutual benefits can be obtained.  It reflects a profound and abiding respect for “the other” – the opponent.  Genuine competition, far from being the opposite of cooperation, is built on a belief that we are all united in a desire for growth, improvement, competence, and mastery, and that we need one another to be our best.

For more elaborated descriptions of this view, see:

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2009).  True competition: A guide to pursuing excellence in sport and society. Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2011).  Contest, competition, and metaphor.  Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 38, 27-38.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2011).  Why sportsmanship programs fail, and what we can do about it.  JOPERD:  Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(7), 24-29.


David Light Shields is Professor of Educational Psychology at St. Louis Community College – Meramec.

Opinions expressed in these Op Ed pieces are solely those of the author and not intended to represent AME. AME chooses to publish pieces that will foster discussion on issues related to moral psychology, philosophy, development, and education.