Whether we strive to be the smartest, the fastest or the beer pong champion, it can be a rare thing to find oneself in a social context completely devoid of any contest.
Most of us can’t even recall having been to a house party that didn’t at some point feature a chance to prove your superiority over your friends via some drinking game or other.
Beyond that, the nature of student activities, whether they’re in the classroom or not, often have us working with people we eventually have to compete against in some capacity. It can be a tricky dynamic to run lines with someone on one day and audition for the same part the next, but most of us will find ourselves navigating similar situations this coming term.
For some students, it’s already a familiar position. You don’t need to look much further than athletics to see this dynamic in action.
Danielle Abusow, a rower for Queen’s varsity team, has had her share of races competing against her own teammates.
Although they train as a group in larger boats, regattas will sometimes allow for more than one single rower from the same school to row in the same race. It’s in situations like this that Abusow, ArtSci ’16, has found herself facing the same girls she’s been training with all season.
It sounds less than ideal, with all those hours of effort coming to a race against someone whose skill you can account for with some accuracy. Still, Abusow argues that there is some benefit to a known quantity.
“I would say it’s an advantage in the sense that it helps push you to become a better athlete,” Abusow said. “So if your friend who you’re always training with is beating you then at practice, you can push yourself more next to them and hopefully that will help make you your own better athlete and help reach personal bests.”
That being said, these circumstances do come with their challenges.
“I think it can be a little bit discouraging at some points, though, and it might create a little bit of tension depending on the situation,” Abusow said.
Her advice for lessening the tension is to maintain a healthy friendship by doing activities together outside the given competition — in particular, anything that might help you remember the other person is more than just a potential opponent.
But these tips may be easier in theory than in reality. Steve Boyd, head coach of Queen’s cross country team, can attest to competitive spirits as a constant presence, even during training.
“Athletes have a tendency to compete against each other in workouts and sometimes undermine the purpose of the workout, so we constantly try to deal with that and counter that a little bit,” Boyd said.
As a “team of individuals”, as Boyd referred to the cross-country runners, athletes train together, but always compete as individual representatives of their school and thus often race one another.
When so much energy is focused on cultivating a competitive spirit, it can be a challenge to turn it off in non-competitive environments, like at practice. But balancing individual desire for excellence with a sense of team spirit has its advantages.
“Two things can motivate you,” Boyd said, referring to his runners’ mindsets. “One is that you have a certain amount of pride invested and that you don’t want to lose to a teammate because you’ve … decided that you’re better than them.
“The other side is that when you actually get in a race, you want to do better for your team, for the team result at the end, so there’s an advantage there.”
While it’s hardly surprising to find in sport, that tension between collaboration and competition seems increasingly prevalent in other aspects of the post-secondary experience.
As a fourth-year life sciences student, Daniel Meyers has encountered this dynamic frequently in his studies. The reality is that most life sciences students are competing against one another in some form.
“Most students, I’d say probably about 80 per cent of the people I know, want to go into medical school and every single year the application rates are going higher and higher,” said Meyers, ArtSci ’15.
“So in order to gain entrance into these programs, you have to be competitive and you have to really care and be conscientious about your work.”
This implicit, ever-present competition has an impact even in what might otherwise be collaborative endeavours. Participation in group projects, for instance, is sometimes motivated by an understanding of the personal impact that one’s performance will have on their reputation.
“So if you’re in a group project and you don’t do anything … it’s a relatively small program so you’re going to be known as that student who didn’t do anything in that group project,” Meyers said.
In this instance, that competitive spirit and desire for individual success can further cooperative endeavours, and benefit the whole group. Although students aren’t overtly hostile or aggressive, knowledge of what will and won’t help their own pursuits is never far from their minds.
“I don’t feel a competitiveness on a person-to-person basis, but I’ll reiterate that there just is an inherent competitiveness to the program because of what the next step [is] and everyone’s future goals,” Meyers said.
Peter Kissick, a professor with the Queen’s School of Business who is cross-appointed in the Law School, also thinks that the looming future motivates a competitive dynamic.
“I think it’s the uncertainty, to be honest with you. That whole, ‘I’m spending a whole bunch of money on my education now, what’s going to be there at the end of all this?’ And if that means that I’ve got to be better than the next person from Queen’s then I’m going to be a little competitive,” Kissick said.
Because students don’t always know what’s coming for them after they graduate, it can feel like the safest option to ensure employment is simply to come out looking better than their classmates. The driving force, then, is not a desire among students to sabotage their peers, but a fear of the unknown.
If students are, in this way, essentially a product of their circumstances, is that uncertainty furthering their education as they aspire to competitive programs or limiting it? According to Kissick, it can actually prevent valuable learning.
“I think that learning comes from occasionally going off on tangents and digressions, and students don’t like that as much as they once might have,” Kissick said. “I guess the answer is, when students are results-driven, if it’s not connected to a mark, that’s an issue.”
It’s the marks that indicate who wins in this constructed academic competition. Rarely are students concerned with learning more than their classmates so much as appearing more knowledgeable.
When students are willing to cut others down or leech off of group members for impressive marks, they allow themselves to miss out on other kinds of meaningful learning. Not only are they misplacing their energy on the failure of others, they’re passing up the opportunity to build important cooperative skills.
“At the end of the day, you’re probably going to have to work collaboratively in the workplace anyway,” Kissick said. “The lone wolf doesn’t necessarily do very well in the workplace.”
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