There has been a flare-up of an on-going discussion in the SCA bardic community – that of competition. I’ve written a lengthy entry on the topic that summarizes my views on performance competitions.
As to why I prefer a competitive environment?
1. Structure and Equality. A competition is a game, and the players of a game must abide by the same set of rules. This puts everyone on a level playing field. No, you might not be comfortable on that field – but neither is anyone else, really.
Also, how many times have you gone to a bardic circle and That Person just won’t stop hogging the spotlight? It’s rude and disrespectful to other performers – we all know and feel it. We can try to engender that futzy culture of “be mindful of others,” but the structure of a competition removes that possibility entirely.
2. Challenge. I argue that it is impossible to issue a fair challenge to yourself. It’s a conflict of interest due to our amazingly biased perspectives towards ourselves. You can set yourself up for failure, or set a small goal that is easy to accomplish and doesn’t teach you anything. Competitions provide a source of external challenge that is very often unexpected; this often results in a caliber of performance that neither the audience nor the performer expected.
This is not to say that you cannot challenge yourself – only that any such challenge is unlikely to yield a functionally objective self-assessment.
3. Inspiration and Respect. We teach, in the SCA, that we should draw inspiration from one another. This is the heart of a good competition. We draw inspiration from the excellent effort we see around us, and in doing so, we take the opportunity to “rise to the occasion.”
It also helps to engender a spirit of mutual respect. We acknowledge those pieces which we found to particularly powerful; in the uncomfortable environment of competition, such acknowledgment provides relief, which in turn creates a deeper appreciation in the recepient of such acknowledgment.
Approaching other bards on an even playing field also sends a subtle message that serves as a backdrop for the competition: “You are my peer. You are valued as much as I am. You are a worthy competitor.” Good sportsmanship is an excellent method of respecting the other competitors.
4. Self-Improvement. The reason to have a fair challenge is to test one’s skills, and find the areas of strength and weakness in an objective manner. That allows us to showcase our strengths and work on our weaknesses. Objectivity is important, because sometimes there are things we don’t want to admit to ourselves; competitions can force us to look at those things, rather than shield ourselves from them.
5. Confidence-Building. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bard that doesn’t need any more self-confidence. I say this with love and respect, but seriously, most of us are down on ourselves by default. This is crap. Being successful at a competition requires a touch of arrogance and a lot of confidence – and yes, these are things you can learn. Putting yourself out there at a competition is you saying “I”m good enough to be a contender.” Do that often enough, and you’ll start believing it.
All of these things are fun for me, and I approach them with a mindset of having fun. All too often, the attitude I read is that “competition” and “fun” are mutually exclusive; this doesn’t have to be the case.
If one approaches with a mindset of 1) learning as fun and 2) wanting to learn about oneself, one can extract a lot of enjoyment out of nearly any competition.
Many competitors have an unhealthy attitude about competition. This is harmful to everyone. Ungracious winners, sore losers, cheaters, and all other sorts of personalities undermine all of those wonderful things I’ve enumerated above.
So I would ultimately argue that the issue isn’t with the nature or principle of competition – but rather with the way that competition is applied, and the attitude underlying it.
Many issues with competitions also stem from people’s underlying insecurities about competitions. Cheaters are selfish people who want to exert more control than everyone else, because they fear their own abilities are insufficient. If we don’t attempt to manage our insecurities in a competition, we will doom ourselves to failure, and will not draw use from it.
And I am in no way denigrating non-competitive performance; indeed, that is the essence of creating our collective fiction. Competitions are often rather non-immersive, because we all know what’s going on.
Ultimately, I use the two for entirely different purposes.
While I spoke of bardic competition in the SCA specifically, this applies to all manner of competition.
Jane McGonigal has spoken about the positive aspects of gaming, and this is true of competitive gaming; the skills we learn from such applications are taken with us into the “real world,” where we pass those lessons on to others. The SCA is a game, and bardic competitions moreso; the approach to any competitive game will teach us things about ourselves, and allow us to grow and improve as people.
But don’t take my word for it – there are studies demonstrating the positive effects of competition on a person’s performance and intrinsic motivation.
A healthy approach to a fair competition gives us a great opportunity to grow.
Is it the be-all-end-all? Hardly. A singular approach is insufficient for robust growth; however, many people shy away from competitions for various reasons, and this is inadvisable.
We need a wide range of experiences to complete us, and like it or not, competition is part of being alive.