Winning isn’t everything – Why too much competition is bad for schools and students

Six chalk losers and one winner

Cath Bishop explains why seeing education through a prism of competition, complete with winners and losers, ultimately helps no one…

Cath Bishop
by Cath Bishop

Only winning counts! Don’t be a loser!

From classrooms to boardrooms, by way of sports pitches and ballot boxes, there seems to be a widely held belief that winning is a force for good to which we should all aspire, but I don’t think this belief serves us well at all. If anything, it holds us back from exploring all the options available to us and reaching our full potential.

The sense of needing to win and beat those around us typically starts early, with parents, teachers and coaches all extolling the virtues of winning throughout childhood and adolescence. We’re rewarded and praised when we do well in tests and exams. Those who come top of the class are given awards in assembly.

Students compete with their peers as to who can get the best marks. At best, health, happiness, kindness and collaboration are considered optional. At worst, we’re encouraged to actively avoid them – after all, collaboration can be easily mistaken for cheating, and no one wants that…

Deep impact

Over time, our education system has evolved into a complex competitive game involving grades, house points, prizes and league tables. We need to understand the deep impact this can have on pupil and teacher performance, and recognise how a heavy price will often be paid when individuals are driven by such motivations.

Competition is seen as a useful motivating force, but it can often have the opposite effect.

In focusing on external markers and extrinsic rewards (grades, marks and the like) schools risk overlooking some important intrinsic drivers, such as the joy of learning to think in different ways, children’s instinctive love and embrace of certain disciplines over others, the satisfaction that comes from solving puzzles and the excitement of challenges that lack clear outcomes.

Exams and tests rarely acknowledge divergent thinking, let alone reward it. Instead, they demand a form of convergent thinking based around unambiguous answers and criteria that can be easily summarised on a marking sheet.

During test preparations, students are discouraged from spending time on anything that won’t be directly measured or contribute to rankings. At its most extreme, this mindset can dissuade pupils from taking subjects they may love, but not excel in.

There’s no reward from simply doing the work, applying newly acquired knowledge or learning how to think differently; all that’s important is the mark they get at the end.

No neat answers

This impulse might be understandable if it helped students in later life, but it doesn’t. Our adult lives don’t operate according a neat right/wrong axis. There are few neat answers, but lots of uncertainty.

Leaders will frequently be called upon to think creatively, innovate, juggle multiple priorities and make difficult decisions on the basis of incomplete information.

Yet in the world of competitive education, children will be labelled as ‘academic’ or not, ‘bright’ or not, despite developing at vastly differing rates – to say nothing of how a child’s true potential might be realised in many different fields that lie beyond the subject categories of school.

Such siloed thinking is poor preparation for the complex personal and professional issues students will encounter later in life.

These narrowly defined conceptions of talent also leave behind a vast and untapped pool of diverse thought and potential among students that could be of huge benefit to employers and wider society, if only it were properly acknowledged, supported and developed.

A great demotivator

Focusing on coming top, being the best and superior to those around you actually demotivates more than it motivates. While the winners are heralded, the message to everyone else is ‘You are not good enough.

Too many pupils thus leave school nursing a deep-rooted sense of failure in relation to their studies, and sometimes even in relation to themselves as people. A system dominated by rankings and grades can’t help but make ‘failure’ both highly visible and stigmatised.

At the same time, however, all of us know how important failure is as part of any learning process, and how there’s ultimately no way of avoiding it entirely in our daily lives.

Emphasising competition within education places huge pressures on pupils’ self-esteem. The desire to be better than others is markedly different from the desire to do well.

There’s something inherently compensatory about the former – outdoing others in order to make up for some personal inadequacy, demonstrating strength or intellectual superiority over others in order to convince oneself that one is a good person. This isn’t a healthy way of thinking, either at school or in later life.

Such thinking can cause huge challenges in elite sport. For Olympic athletes, the desire to win can often distract from the pursuit of sporting excellence, causing a fear of failure that prompts them to excessively focus on their competitors, rather than on their own performance.

Developments in sports psychology have shown that focusing on the desire to win actually reduces the chances of winning, while focusing on the performance process itself will maximise them.

The three Cs

Despite most work in organisations being undertaken in teams, the school experience mostly involves pupils working alone. Teamwork is essential in any organisation, yet many employees often have to adjust to working in teams, having had comparatively little experience of this throughout their formal education.

In the course of my leadership development work, I’ve seen business leaders crying out for employees who can think creatively and challenge the status quo – traits rarely nurtured in UK schools.

One UK company I worked with had ‘Challenging the status quo’ as one of its corporate values, but couldn’t understand why hardly anyone would do so.

To its employees, this felt dangerous – something they’d been taught to avoid at all costs throughout their schooling and early work experiences.

In my book The Long Win, I propose recalibrating what success looks like, and redefining winning via the ‘three Cs’: ‘Clarity’, ‘Constant learning’ and ‘Connection’.

The allure of short-term results has to be set against the longer-term prize of a broad education that forms part of a lifelong learning process.

A ‘Constant Learning’ mindset sets students up for an ongoing process of personal growth, rather than one considered finished once exams are over. Constant Learning’s emphasis on mastery over outcomes helps create resilience and hone students’ abilities at adapting when things don’t go to plan.

Prioritising human connections across the education system will help create citizens who are ready to contribute to society, build and join communities, and seek opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

The future challenges that younger generations will face aren’t ones that can be ‘won’. From climate change to global inequality, from international security to global health, these are all areas that will require collective, long-term responses.

How we define success at school will shape students’ mindsets and behaviours for the rest of their lives.

Re-evaluating what ‘winning’ means in schools isn’t about limiting young people’s ambitions; it’s about creating an environment that broadens the possibilities for all children, through which we can develop a generation of more cognitively diverse students, and expand the scope of what they can potentially contribute to society as adults.

Better together

There are significant mental health benefits to be had from working more collaboratively at school.

Extensive research into this area by the psychologist Terry Orlick concludes that ‘Experiences in human cooperation are the most essential ingredient for the development of psychological health.’

Ranking students and pitting them against each other further works against the process of learning how to collaborate and cooperate with peers, right at the point when young people will be developing important social skills and awareness.

Cath Bishop is an Olympic medallist, international diplomat and business coach; her new book is The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed (£12.99, Practical Inspiration Publishing); for more information, visit or follow @thecathbishop.

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