The shame of victory, the social-appropriateness of defeat.

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat was an old slogan from ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the 1970s. A lot has changed in the 40 years since that slogan was popularized.

Earlier this week I overheard a boy holler, “I’m gonna win!  I’m gonna beat you!” and his mother immediately admonished him.  It caught my attention briefly because although it was just harmless kid-competition, it clearly embarrassed her, and my suspicion was that it embarrassed her because her son probably was going to win at the event in progress.  Of course, no one likes a braggart, but the kid wasn’t being over-the-top about it and it is normal for children, especially boys, to engage in the very human activity of competition and to take pleasure in winning.

I forgot about the incident until Friday when, during a speech therapy session that another mother was observing, one of the little boys in the group exclaimed, “I’m going to win!”  Since the task we were doing did not involve any competition, I started to tell him, “This is not a winning or losing activity, it’s an everybody-get-it-done activity” but his mother jumped in and corrected him before I could.  When we finished that task, the boys and I played a game to practice categorizing vocabulary items which involved competing to see who could be the first one to accumulate a word from each of five given categories.  I guess you could say everyone “wins” if they participate because they learn the words, but the actual game (and the only part the boys really cared about) involved someone winning by beating the other players and being first.

The boys tried to remind each other regularly about their individual imminent victory.  However, it was really stressing out the mother who was watching; whenever her son would get excited about acquiring another word and start to say “I’m about to win!” she’d jump in and say, “It’s not about winning; that’s not the point.”  I finally gently and respectfully pointed out that the game was in fact a competition and the object of the game was to win.

That was twice in one week that I had noticed the same thing from two different mothers, and I wondered what was going on with all this mother anxiety about children competing and getting excited about trying to win.  I decided I would explore the idea in a post when I had time and then forgot about it.

Until yesterday morning, when I had to take one of my daughters to run the Chelsea Heart and Sole 5K race. As I was sitting near the finish line waiting for my girl, I heard a boy say to his siblings, “I beat you!” as the family walked away from the finish line.  “It’s not about that!” his mother snapped at him.

OK, what?

Isn’t the point of a race to compete and hopefully win?  I think so and here is my evidence:


Why have a time clock and finish line if there is no goal to compete or to win?  Even if you know you will be bested by someone else, you are still racing against them because that is the point of a race.  If races are not about running to win, then why does the 5K website note:

Overall Male and Female winners in each event receive a trophy.

Now, there were certainly many people participating in the 5K who didn’t care about winning because they weren’t racing, they were participating.  Their goal wasn’t to race but to complete the course as a social event for some fresh air and exercise.  This is a small town and these kinds of events are also social gatherings. That’s why they brought over a van load of folks from the senior center and that’s why some special-needs high schoolers in wheel chairs were participating.

My nine-year-old daughter’s time was just shy of 40 minutes for the 5K; when it comes to running, she’s more enthusiastic than talented.  Her time put her across the finish line just barely ahead of the grannies in their motor scooters – and that is okay!  It is okay to run the race knowing that others are faster and will beat you.  What it is not okay to do is to conclude that because some people weren’t trying to win, therefore the point of a race isn’t for someone to win and that it’s wrong for others to try to win just because some people can’t.

But the boy who said this is in my daughter’s after-school running club.  These kids were there to race, to see who could run the fastest and win. It was a friendly competition, entirely normal and healthy.  The purpose of competitive games is to see who can win.  Why pathologize normal competition?  Why should people who win be ashamed of winning?

Of course, a humble attitude about winning is necessary, but that doesn’t mean that the point of a race isn’t still to compete and win.  The mothers I observed this week kept telling their sons that the point of a clearly competitive event wasn’t actually to compete.  If they thought their sons were being boastful, they might have corrected them by saying, “Don’t brag” or “Be humble.”  Instead they told them that they were wrong to think that the point of an obviously competitive event (whether it be a game or a race) was something other than competing.

Is this competition anxiety reserved for boys?  Particularly for white boys?  (I’m only using “white” here because those are the only kind of boys I routinely interact with because I live and work in a nearly mono-ethnic community.  Also, when I lived in a more diverse town, I never observed a non-white mother correct her son for trying to win in a competition.  Maybe if I have any non-white mothers reading, you can weigh in here and let me know if this happens in other ethnic/racial groups, too.)

I don’t think the mothers I observed admonishing their boys were bad mothers; in fact, I think they were very good mothers.  They were experiencing anxiety because they unconsciously perceived that their sons were violating an unspoken social norm and they were doing what they believed was right and moral for training their sons.  What I find interesting is that this social norm even exists: competing or winning or wanting to win or saying you want to win or noticing you won or expressing any pleasure in having won seems to be the new shame for (white?) boys.

 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control,[b] lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

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