I had a conversation a while back with someone who asked why I did not place my students in competition. When I conveyed my mandate of non-competition the reply was, “Oh, you mean just for fun.”
This is an interesting perspective because it is not necessarily what I have in mind when I talk about it.
I generally believe that what educators need to do with arts training is aim to create elite artists, with all the skills of the competition level kids, while fostering their passion and dedication first and foremost. Putting kids in a competitive setting means the minute we place a mark, a placement, a ‘better than’ on something it effectively negates all of the hours of sweating in the studio, theatre or practice room by telling the student that they are right or wrong.
Competition, especially at younger ages, can have a dark effect on children.
Take a look at these examples:
3rd place or lower: A very talented child or group of children places third, or not at all. These kids feel that they are not doing a good enough job or that they are less talented than the first or second place finishers, and their passion takes a dive.
1st Place: Perhaps a more dangerous outcome, I have seen high level competitors stop striving to improve because they thought they were at the top. Receiving well deserved recognition they thought they were better than the other people, figured they ‘had it’ and could relax.
Both scenarios end in a Stalemate.
We have a passion that has been turned into a false sense of accomplishment and the reason for accomplishment or failure and the reason for striving to improve has been turned into being at the top rather than the journey to the top.
This is not to say there should not be a little healthy competition to stimulate a child’s drive to get better. We can do this by exposing our little artists to what other kids their age are doing by having them participate in master classes, workshops and even ‘non competitive’ parts of performing arts festivals.
The classroom is also the perfect environment to set up a little initiative as students will see the other kids in class getting better and they will immediately rise to the challenge by working harder to rise to the level of the hotshots around them.
Now while I know some will not agree with this stance, it is intended to start a discussion.
I’m not saying there is no place for competition in the arts. In fact, I think it is fantastic! I just wish there was a way to teach our kids about passion and creativity without having to place a mark or placement of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd,or last.
I’ve noticed with a lot of performers who have come in 1st their whole lives that they have little desire to get better because they have always been told they are the best. I worked with a guy who had been a star by the time he was 10, turned professional at 16 and was ready to quit by the age of 19 because he was bored and jaded with the business.
What if that same performer had been trained to absolutely LOVE what they were working on without that reward at the end, without the gold star? I think it is good to not necessarily know where you stand in terms of accomplishments because it always leaves you wanting to get better which translates directly into excitement for your work.
Regardless of whether or not our kids compete, we need to be active as parents to make sure that our kids are getting the RIGHT training in the arts and that creativity is never stifled by a grade.
I am inspired by my friend Carol’s experience: her daughter has been to provincials in dance 3 times. This kid has no idea what her marks were for the last 2 years because her mom feels the ranking gets in the way of her progress and her love of dance.
The funny thing about this is, the young lady wins and performs better without the knowledge of marks! What I am talking about is not black and white and there are many ways in which competitions are great, but we need to monitor every step of the way and watch for that switch where a kid starts to brag or change their motivations for practicing.
The underdog should not to be taken for granted.
Those folks who consistently succeed in the arts, and in life, are the ones who persevere and work their heinies off to get where they are going and not necessarily the ones who have always been ‘the best’. The most important thing is that the skills are developed, practiced, perfected and treated with a great deal of respect, passion and love.
Being a professional performer, I have had plenty of competition for jobs in my adult life. This pressure is very great and takes a tremendous amount of courage to overcome – in my view handled by a well-trained adult ready for the pressures of the ‘real world’.
I want our young artists to be confident, vibrant and highly skilled without the baggage.
I want them to develop complete confidence in and passion for what they are doing.
This takes hard work and discipline and is not always easy. To guide our children to excellence we need to expect as much from our little ones in the studio as we would from any kids in competition. But the means of getting there can be just a little different.
Perhaps with a different focus kids can arrive at a place of excellence in dance with joy and passion intact.