Swimming carnival - what's going wrong?

Latest News Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

What become evident last week at the swimming carnival was the number of children withdrawing from events. The trickle became a torrent and to be honest, this truly concerned me, the staff, and some parents I spoke to.  There seemed to be three things going on which portends something concerning as children grow up.

  • Hypercompetitive – the individual would rather not compete if he can’t come first.
  • Anxiety inducing withdrawal from events.
  • Dictating to parents what s/he will do with parents not challenging their decision.

There is a small number of children who have not found the right way to compete. This small group is grounded in the belief that they have to come first and if they believe they cannot come first, then (according to their belief system) it is better not to compete. It is possible to be hypercompetitive, which researchers define as having an unhealthy need to win at all costs. However, this is more about a ‘fear of failure’ and is related to common anxiety – performance anxiety. It needs to be dealt with otherwise it can become debilitating in the long run. Beliefs regarding competitiveness need to be placed on a continuum. Most people draw a line between healthy and unhealthy competition, have a sense of what is too much or too little competition, but determining just where those distinctions lie in any given context is quite contentious. However, individuals who derive their self-worth primarily from winning, or from the social status and tangible rewards that come from winning, are more likely to be competitive to an unhealthy degree. These individuals need to learn how to manage the emotions of ‘losing’ and learn how beneficial losing can be.

The greater issue at the carnival was related to the withdrawal owing simply to anxiety. Everyone experiences the ‘butterfly in the stomach’ or the general feeling of trepidation before competing and invariably finds it unsettling. But that serves a purpose and an important function psychologically and the idea is to plough through and to prove to yourself that you can overcome these moments of doubt and anxiety. Ultimately, for those who have competed throughout life, you know that you soon learn to live with those unsettling feelings and learn to know that they won’t dictate to you. You learn that in life, anxious moments will often recur but learn that the multiple times you have overcome it inoculates you to the big moments such as swimming at higher CIS levels or (for example) going for job interviews. Feeling anxiety in these moments is natural and moreover, children cannot and should not go through life avoiding that which they don’t like. Avoidance is not a strategy; it is a cop out. Far better to confront the anxiety and fears since that builds self-concept and ultimately, self-esteem.

Finally, as a parent, if my sons were to have ever said to me they did not want to swim (or run, or play their instrument at a soiree etc) I would have strongly encouraged them or even said they had to. I would have spoken to them about the need to compete for both their own good and for the good of their House and school. I would not have given them much ‘wriggle room’ to be honest because sometimes, we know better as parents. We know through life’s experiences that to confront challenges is healthy, builds character, builds resilience and that the parental ‘cruel to be kind’ ethic is the right direction at the right time. Nothing succeeds like success. Capitulating to children’s demands makes parenting harder and does not enable/empower the child. Na'aseh V'nishma or as Nike’s motto states: “Just Do It”.

There was a small number of students who swam every race they could. They competed in everything regardless of their swimming ability. They were not motivated by ribbons but by a liking for taking part. This was noted by everyone and I congratulate them all. Perhaps the past two years of COVID has made people less secure. Who knows? However, one way or another, we want to see greater participation in 2023. 

Photo credit: Ofer Levy

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