“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers." -- Nelson Mandela, 2000
In 2000, Nelson Mandela gave the keynote address at the Laureus World Sports Awards. The Laureus awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women in the world of sports each year. They are like the Oscars of the sports world, but on steroids, encompassing all sports across the entire globe.
Nelson Mandela’s remarks hit home on the point of just how powerful sports can be. However, we believe there is something slightly off with this remark. Although the pure physicality of many professional athletes may have some additional attraction for many people, the factors that provide the powerful effects of which Mr. Mandela speaks are not unique to sports – they are seen through all kinds of competitions. The power comes from the fact that they are competitions in and of themselves. It comes from the fact that there is a struggle between participants to prove they are elite performers reaching a level few can reach.
Nelson Mandela’s quote could be more accurately stated as, “Competitions have the power to change the world.” So what is it about competition that makes us think that it has the power to change the world? To inspire and unite people like little else does? And what exactly is this power? At the Institute of Competition Sciences, we evaluate the research and analyze data on how competitions impact people. Not only the participants in competitions, but their families, friends, communities, and societies at large.
When it comes to scientific studies, there has been a lot of research into how academic competitions impact the students who participate. Unfortunately, little has actually been studied in how they impact the communities around the students. However, for many of the kinds of benefits we want to explore, the differences between physical competitions and mental competitions are irrelevant. Much of the benefit in a community that embraces a competition will be the same regardless of whether it is an athletic one or in the academic realm.
What We Can Learn From Athletics
The government of Australia has been a leader in embracing sports competitions as a means to improve community building efforts, and enhance their society at large. The government keeps a “Clearinghouse for Sport” online that houses an entire knowledge base of information about the various ways in which sports can help communities. Although some of these are specific to the physical attributes of sports – such as increased health benefits from being more active – many are directly translatable to other areas of competitions, such as in educational challenges.
Australia’s Clearinghouse on Sport lists Social Capital, Building Communities, Well-being, and Social Impacts and Interventions as four key areas where sports can provide valuable benefits. In the absence of other direct studies on the academic competition impact in these areas, we thought it valuable to evaluate the reasoning and data behind what the Australian government lists for its sports benefits. Particularly we were interested in how competitions help build community and have other social impacts on those around the participants.
What we found in our literature review was that it is not the fact that people participate specifically in athletics that brings about the community benefits noted, but rather that there is a competition itself that is available to provide an attractive gathering place for the community. To gain these social benefits the competition does not have to be a physical, head-to-head challenge bringing people together. It can be anything using the competition model that helps communities come together around a shared appreciation of excellence in the subject of the challenge.
In one 2008 report, “More than winning: The real value of sport and recreation in Western Australia," the Department of Sport and Recreation in the government of Western Australia identifies some core ways that athletic competitions contribute to our lives. Among these, the report states that:
- Sport and recreation serve as a catalyst for community gatherings, bringing people together for play, talk and shared experiences. Importantly, sport has a positive effect that reaches many levels of our society, providing an important thread that ties our social fabric.
- In most regional and remote communities, sports clubs sustain community interaction; bringing people together to boost confidence through times of prosperity and galvanizing communities in times of need.
- Recreational and sporting activities rely upon a significant voluntary workforce that enriches people’s lives and improve their connections within the wider community.
- Sport and recreation is a key medium for creating new relationships among disparate social groups.
- Youth’s participation in sport may contribute to academic performance; but more importantly, participation contributes to social development and can teach valuable life skills. Sport and recreation may also help to divert young people from anti-social behavior by targeting those most at risk.
Furthermore, in his paper, “Empowering people, facilitating community development, and contributing to sustainable development,” Dr. Hal Lawson, notes five impacts that sports have on social development:
- They produce and reinforce social networks involving participants, their family systems, and other residents of the community. Vibrant social networks produce rich stocks of social trust, norms of reciprocity, and conditions conductive to cooperation, coordination, and collaboration.
- They contribute to the development of collective identities. Local community identity is especially important because it helps to bridge inter-group differences and conflicts, facilitate social integration, and create solidarity.
- They can improve personal health by creating health enhancing environments.
- They can improve personal wellbeing by supporting opportunities for human development across the life course.
- They contribute to human social capital – that characteristics deemed essential to sustainable, integrated social development.
Additionally, in 2015, Dr. Russell Hoye and his colleagues published a paper on the “Involvement in sport and social connectedness,” in which they explored the relationship between involvement in athletic competitions and social connectedness. It compares involvement in sporting organizations versus involvement in other non-sport community organizations. One conclusion made by Dr. Hoye was that sport involvement was found to be a good predictor of high social connectedness while involvement in non-sport community organizations was not.
However, the key distinction between these two types of organizations was not that one was a physical program and the other was not, but rather that one was a competition-based program (sports) and the other was not. None of the “non-sport” community organizations in Dr. Hoye’s study involved any kind of other competition based programs such as academic competitions. So, is it a logical step to extend Dr. Hoye’s and Dr. Lawson’s conclusions to other competition-based programs such as educational competitions? To an extent, we believe so. Many of the benefits discussed in their reviews have little to no causal relation to physical activity, but are rather tied to the fact that a competition structure is available to bring the community together. Of course, much more research on academic competitions themselves is still needed.
We know that many academic competitions serve as great community gathering places. Local and Regional science fairs, robotics competitions, and quizbowls among numerous others, provide communities with the opportunity to sustain interactions and strengthen social ties that include learning and education as a fundamental tenant of the community identity. Academic competitions provide many opportunities for volunteers to participate in the programs at all levels. Many community leaders often serve as judges, mentors, and advisors to students as they enter competitions and progress to ever increasing levels of the challenges.
So what can we actually learn about academic competitions based on this literature review of the impact that sporting competitions have on Australian communities? Here are our top 4 Community Impacts of educational competitions:
- Increase Community Cohesiveness & Interactions. Competitions in general serve as a catalyst for community gatherings, bringing people together for play, talk and shared experiences. The structure of competition provides an overall positive effect that reaches many levels of society. In regional and remote communities, competitions can help sustain community interactions. By bringing people together it can boost confidence through times of prosperity and galvanize communities in times of need. These activities often rely upon a significant voluntary workforce (judges, volunteers, mentors, etc.) where the opportunities to support the community youth help enrich people’s lives and improve their connections within the wider community. Educational competitions have the added benefit of bringing people together around positive academic fields to help increase interactions around learning.
- Increase Social Skills Development for Youth. Youth’s participation community based competitions contributes to social development and can teach valuable life skills. Providing these activities within a community may also help to divert young people from anti-social behavior by targeting those most at risk. Supporting academic competitions may have similar effects on family members, friends, and other community members as well.
- Strengthen Social Networks Within the Community. Competitions produce and reinforce social networks involving participants, their families, and other residents of the community. Vibrant social networks produce rich forms of social trust, reciprocity, and strengthen the conditions for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration among otherwise disparate member of the community. Community based competitions where they are widely adopted can be a key medium for creating new relationships among disparate social groups. By providing a forum where community youths can strengthen social networks with positive role models in academics, it has the added benefit of enhancing potential future economic opportunities as well.
- Enhance the Development of Collective Identities. Competitions contribute to the development of collective identities. Local community identity is especially important because it helps to bridge inter-group differences and conflicts, facilitate social integration, and create solidarity. If members of a community have strong common identities, they are less likely to start arguments or break bonds within the community. They are more likely to be able to work out disagreements and maintain their shared identities. Additionally, academic competitions particularly increase the shared identity of a community valuing excellence in academics as well as athletics or other topics.
All in all, the Australian government’s review of the benefits of sport to their communities demonstrates many high-level benefits of “competition” – not just athletics to communities. Many of these benefits examined in their reviews are just as applicable to academic competitions as athletic ones. So should we ditch sports and just focus on academics? Of course not. We should continue to embrace sports in our communities just as we always have been. There are many physical benefits from sport that are important to youth development that will not be achieved through academic competitions; however, there are also unique benefits to academic competitions, and many overarching benefits achieved from all types of competitions. Both academic and athletic competitions should be embraced by communities to create the well-adjusted, socially connected, world-wise youth that our societies strive for.