Competition Versus Cooperation – It’s Not an Either Or Proposition

There has been an ongoing debate in the world of youth sports about the value of the participation trophy. Those in favor want to make sure that every child feels that his or her participation mattered. Those against want the best teams and best players to get the recognition they deserved.

There are merits to both views, of course. Which side of the discussion you fall on likely depends on what you see as the real value of youth sports and even academic competitions. Should we encourage kids to cooperate and play together? Should we be happy that they are doing something together and getting along?

Or should we push them to compete and be the best at whatever they do despite the demoralizing effect losing could have on the other children? Should we emphasize winning over everything else?Parents, educators, and coaches will all have their own ideas as to which train of thought is the right one. Many will argue until they are blue in the face in an effort to convince the world their way isn’t just the right way; it’s the only way.

But according to one study the key to success is a combination of competition and cooperation. Dr. John Taur, Ph.D. ( described a study where all of the kids in attendance at a basketball camp were asked to attempt ten free throws on the first day of the camp. Each participant was separated into one of four groups:

  1. Individual - kids shot alone and tried to meet a goal (e.g., try to make 7 out of 10 free throws)
  2. Pure cooperation - kids shot with a teammate and tried to meet a group goal (e.g., try to make a total of 14 out of 20 free throws)
  3. Pure competition - kids tried to make more free throws than an opponent (e.g., the winner was the camper who made the most free throws out of 10)
  4. Intergroup (team) competition - a team of two campers tried to make more free throws with a teammate than another team of two campers (e.g., the winner was the team that made the most free throws out of 20).

Upon completing their shots, each participant was told whether he or she met the goal or won and then was asked to fill out a questionnaire about how much they did or didn’t enjoy the activity. The idea was to attempt to gain a joy measurement so that researchers could gauge their intrinsic motivation.

People who are against participation trophies are going to be all about the pure competition group. They want to prove they are better and make sure others know they are, too. Those in favor of participation trophies will be all about the pure cooperation group. It’s not beating someone that matters; it’s how you play the game with your friend/teammate.

But what researchers found is that kids did not prefer either pure competition or pure cooperation. Instead, the data showed that they were in favor of playing as part of a team (cooperation) and against another team (competition). Not only did they prefer to work with a team against another, but in two of three studies, they even performed better. In doing so, not only do they experience the importance of working together towards a common goal, but they also get credit (a win) for being good at something (or at least better than their opponent).

So—what does this mean for academic competitions?

Students in academic competitions can learn the same lessons as their friends at football, baseball, or basketball practice (or any other sport). It’s just a matter of finding the right competition to match with a student’s skill set. Luckily, there are plenty of options out there.

You don’t have to be athletically inclined to understand the value of teamwork or experience the thrill of competition. You just have to find the right competition for you and a team you can work with. When we think about the question of what is the most beneficial for our students, cooperation or competition, perhaps the right answer is actually a combination of the two as Dr. Taur discovered at his basketball camp.


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