From Competition to Cooperation

My first exposure to competitive club travel sports was a difficult one, primarily because of the attitude and actions of one team member. She was quick to say how certain team members didn’t deserve play time because they weren’t as good as she was. Or she would talk behind my back and belittle me. She could do no wrong, and was the strongest on the team, she claimed. Every time we lost, she would pout and get mad at all her teammates. Her words crushed me like a heavy hammer pounding down onto my soul. Was winning that important to her that she was willing to hurt her teammates in the process?

My father helped me get back up by reminding me that if I just focus on my own personal best, I will thrive. This is a lesson that I hear over and over again, not just from him, but from my teachers and coaches at Sidwell Friends School. Their approach to competition is very different than how my travel volleyball teammate handled competition.

Some students thrive on competition and like to attend schools that actively encourage it between students. These schools force rank the students, publicly post grades, and give out awards based on student rankings. This philosophy is not shared at my school, and I am grateful for it.

The Quaker values lived at Sidwell instead focus on our inward life, on each individual’s personal growth and success. How can I as a student push myself and improve myself regardless of my starting point? How can we help and support others to do their best? This approach motivates and forces me to want to do my best more than seeing my name on a ranked list on a wall.

At my Quaker school, growth is celebrated at both the individual level and the community level. We encourage and support each other as a community. Many projects and activities are team-based, and the focus is on cooperation and group learning. Sometimes these activities are in the form of competition. This cooperative form of competition exists in academics, athletics, clubs, and extracurricular activities.

In academics, one example is our recent novel-writing exercise. We pushed ourselves individually to meet or exceed our own ambitious word-count goals. My goal was to write 666 words every day for a whole month. This was a stretch goal for me, and I knew I couldn’t fall behind even one day. Some days I was able to to write more, and I felt a personal sense of achievement. Some of my peers wrote a lot more than I did. But instead of feeling jealous or underachieving, I celebrated their success, and we helped each other with peer editing.

In athletics, we are pushed to compete. For example, in fitness we compete against ourselves to improve our time when running a mile, or in swimming, completing 20 laps in 20 minutes. For each activity, we always take a moment to encourage and cheer our peers on. Compliments and words of encouragement gush like a waterfall.

One other example that comes to mind is the recent Oxfam Hunger Banquet our sixth grade participated in. In our experiment, the higher income group chose to share food with the lower income group. Some individuals from the lower income group got extra food from the higher income group, and instead of eating it all themselves, they took the little they had and divided it up amongst eight to ten other peers. I wonder if the experience and behavior would be the same at a non-Quaker school that aggressively promotes competition?

Tucker Rae-Grant, STEAM program director, and Bob Courey, Upper School math teacher, both at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Pa., have the perfect way of describing competition at Quaker schools. They call it “coopertition”: “The competition they participate in . . . espouses the almost-Quakerly value of ‘coopertition,’ which is a serious commitment to pushing yourself to do your best while helping others to do theirs.” I think this perfectly describes how competition exists at Sidwell Friends School, but in a way that perfectly supports our Quaker values. Every day we are encouraged to push ourselves to do our personal best, while helping others to do their very best as well.

I can’t help but feel for my volleyball teammate with the harsh words and aggressive approach to competition. If only she too could witness how competition works at a Quaker school. She would soon learn that encouraging her teammates, giving a helping hand to improve their skills, and making sure everyone has an opportunity to shine, would help make the entire team better.

Read more: Student Voices Project 2019

1 thought on “From Competition to Cooperation

  1. Thank you, Lila Safavi. Your essay helps me appreciate “Quaker values” in your school and in the school that is my Meeting’s principal ministry. May you always enjoy pushing yourself to your personal best achievement in all the areas in which you desire to grow. That will surely help you attain your goals in school and in life.

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