When Competition Goes Wrong

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By Anam Afzal

“So what’s your result?” Mrs Shehzad asked eagerly

“I’ve scored 91 % mom,” said Ayesha anxiously.

“Whats your position in class?” Mrs. Shehzad asked with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

“Its third, mom.” Ayesha replied timidly.

“Oh, who stood first?”

“Momina”

“Whats her percentage?”

“I didn’t ask. But if I think it was around  92%”

“Where did she score more?”

“Perhaps in Urdu. But I am not sure mom.”

“You could have atleast compared your report card to hers.”

“I….”

“I’ll do it myself tomorrow”

“Mom…?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve received certificates for highest marks in science and maths. Miss Shaista and Miss Maleeha both praised my performance. Also, Miss Nosheena was really happy with my English paper. She said I’ve made incredible improvement and there were no spelling mistakes this time.”

“That’s good sweetie. Who stood second?”

Such conversations I would witness at every Mid-term And Final-term proclamation in school. Initially, it used to be about being praised in class. Then it became all about positions. Who stood first in the exam? Who scored the highest in tests? Who was “the best” at sports?

You try. You put in all the effort. You’re attentive in class. You do your homework. You work hard. You worry. You’re anxious about your result. You show improvement. And then you’re told its not enough.

You’re told you should be more focused on your competitor’s performance than your own. If you are not good enough to beat your competition, perhaps you’re not loveable enough.

What is the result of all this? Either it results in shattering a student’s confidence or/and wrongly defines achievement and success for him. Depression and anxiety are also one of the repercussions of such attitude towards children.

This attitude does not really change after school. It gets so much inculcated in childeren’s minds that it stays with them throughout their lives and hence gets worse in universities. They do not just want to be the best, they want to beat others by hook or crook. The focus of their efforts is not themselves but their competitors.

We can see students arguing with teachers even in universities. One often witnesses endless arguments about extra marks. Students are often let down because their GPA is a few decimal points less than their competitors. We also see students using various techniques for beating their competition: some of which they have learned over time and some that society itself suggests. Cheating and maintaing rapport with lecturers are some of these techniques.

Does this mean competition is  not healthy? Ofcourse not. Compeition is one of the tools used to extract the best from students. We all need reinforcement and motivation; something that not only keeps us going but encourages us to do better each time. Competition is perhaps the greatest source of motivation for a student. But like every other thing on this planet, it can be used and abused. The sad part is that it is being highly misused in our society. We need to learn the difference between helpful and harmful competition. Its surprising how our choice and use of words and a little effort on the teacher’s part can create such a big difference.

The growing trend of student suicides is also quite alarming. When they are left with no choice but to perform or perish, many succumb under exam pressure and choose the latter.

Every student has his self-esteem which must not be hurt. Many are very sensitive to the words of their teachers or rebuke from parents. They should not be mocked for their weaknesses. Efforts should be directed towards building upon their potentials and aptitudes.

Also, students are forced to select certain specific subjects and professions. Education is conceived of as a means to earn money. It is thought that being a doctor or engineer would bring in more money and prestige. The truth is that if a student is good at something, money will come to him. A brilliant painter earns much more than a mediocre doctor.

The root of this problem lies in forgetting the true purpose of education. We need education to learn how to improve ourselves. We need to push our limits, give our best and develop the habit to question things. There might be people who are better than us. But this does not mean we should give up in fear of performing second best to someone. There is only one winner of a race. Does that mean there should be no other participants? There is only one Aristotle, only one Quaid e Azam, only one Roger Federer and only one Abdul Sattar Edhi. Does that mean no body else should be thinking, struggling for their nation’s revival, participating in sports or doing welfare work? Just because I might not be able to outshine my fellows in journalism, should I stop writing? Ofcourse not! I should not let the fear of failure or of being second best become an obstacle. My focus is on my goal not on my fellows’ performance. This is exactly what we need to teach our students from a very young age.

“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.” -Aristotle

School life is the time when strong perceptions and attitudes are formed that subconsciously remain with us throughout our lives. We can always change at a later stage, but it then requires a long struggle and considerable effort to change existing beliefs and attitudes.

“Give your best and it may never be enough.. Give your best anyway.” –Mother Teresa.

This is what we need to teach children. We often hear parents and teachers telling students that if they work hard enough with commitment and dedication, they can achieve anything. But we also need to teach that one cannot be master of all arts. With the sense of competition we also need to teach sportsmanship. We need to teach them how to accept failure bravely and use that set back as a stepping stone to success.

Many countries offer counselling services to students in schools. School psychologists provide mental health services to help students succeed academically, socially and emotionally. Schools and colleges in our country should also introduce such student couselling services. Also, efforts should be made for teacher training. Teachers should be trained to help students achieve their full potential and build on their strengths.

Fear of not being the best should not bother us. We all have aptitude for something or the other. We can definitely improve with hard work and resilience. Success should not be measured by a rank or a position on a report card but by how well we utilize our potential.

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