Physical Education and Competition: Can Competition and Montessori Coexist?

I have been a basketball coach at my school for nearly a decade. I have coached both boys and girls teams from fourth through eighth grade. Through those years of coaching, there have been some pretty special moments that stand out. One such moment was when one of our fifth grade boy’s teams played in the league championship. Our school had only been in the league for a couple years, and one of our teams made it all the way the finals. Our team was so excited to play; the stands were filled with their classmates and parents. It was a big event and they played their best game of basketball as a team than they had ever done before. Their defense was stifling, they ran up and down the court, they found the open player, and they executed the game plan. I can remember as the game clock got down to ten seconds, all of our supporters started counting down the time. Three…two…one, and our team had won! Kids ran on onto the court to celebrate with the friends, parents were clapping and high-fiving, and I had an overwhelming sense of relief for my team. They had worked so hard, and they were able to reap the benefits of their hard work.

Flash forward two years, and that team was again in the finals. This time, the game was much closer. The two team’s skill levels were very evenly matched, and the lead change was going back and forth. With about 20 seconds left, our team was on defense and the score was tied. The other team was moving the ball well, but our defense was preventing any easy shots. One of their players was forced to take a longer shot than he wanted to, well past the three point line, and it went in! Our team was down by three, and I called a timeout to get the group reset with roughly ten seconds on the clock. We used a play that had several open options, but was designed to create an open three pointer. The ref blew the whistle, and it was time to inbound the ball. Our player passed the ball, and the play was moving as designed. As our best shooter was moving around a pick, he stumbled and was not open anymore, so our point guard had to make a decision. He either had to take the three point shot himself, or wait for the shooter to get to his feet and give him the ball with very little time to get a good shot. Our point guard took the shot. The ball hit the backboard, then hit the rim, rolled once...and rolled out of the basket. The final buzzer went off, the other team and their fans yelled and celebrated, and our team, feeling dejected, lined up for the handshake.

I took our players over to the corner of the gym and told them how proud I was of their effort and that I admired that they refused to give up. They had won the championship with class years ago, and they lost this game with class as well. In front of the team, I told our point guard that he made the right decision. He was the open player; it was his time to take the shot. Even though the result didn’t go the way he wanted, he had the court awareness to know that he had a better chance of making the shot than his teammate, and he had the courage to take that final shot. Most people shy away from that responsibility and pressure, but he decided to own that moment and its outcome regardless of what might be. Our team understood completely, and gave that player a big hug. Even though our player felt bad that he missed the shot, I made sure to let him know that he was courageous in his action, and it was the right decision for the betterment of the team, even though it came with a high personal risk. When I see that student (now many years graduated from our school), he still talks about how important that shot was to him in building his confidence in life.

Competition is Often Handled Poorly

When people hear the word competition in reference to PE or sports, negative examples are usually the first things that come to mind, especially if that person has a visceral memory of how competition went wrong for them. No one wants to be called a “loser,” yet we hear it all the time as an insult to a defeated player or team. In response, a defeated player may say the victors are a “cheater,” regardless of whether that accusation has any merit. Sadly, sometimes it does, and players do cheat to win. A player may decide that they “must win at all cost,” and use illegal maneuvers or break the rules to secure a victory. Another example we have all seen is the “ball hog;” the player who refuses to include teammates for selfish ambition. After a game, we hate to see players displaying a poor negative attitude, usually complaining about referees and accusations of foul play. It’s abhorrent, and gives justification to those who want to limit competition when the witness these behaviors.

It is even worse when an adult displays or encourages this type of behavior. Many of our negative experiences and thoughts concerning competition stem from an adult either promoting or ignoring poor behavior. A good teacher or coach must be willing to intervene and guide the players when these behaviors manifest. Unfortunately, teachers and coaches may ignore the problem for the sake of keeping the flow of the game and hoping that it resolves itself, or even worse they don’t care because the offensive athlete is their “star.” Worst of all is the coach or parent that models this poor behavior to the players and encourages them to act in this manner. This becomes a vicious cycle when that player becomes a coach and models the poor behavior of their coach. There are also coaches who live vicariously through the victory of their team; therefore winning becomes more important than the well being of their student athletes.

How the Good Is Misunderstood

Some would say eliminating competition from PE is the answer, but that would essentially eliminate all sport from PE as well. The definition of sport inherently has competition built into it. Eliminating sport is not a proper solution because sport is an essential part of understanding culture. We must first truly understand what competition is good for. We do we mean when we say things to students like “sportsmanship,” “be a good sport,” and “it matters more how you play the game.” These are very difficult concepts to break down, and we don’t often take the time to explain what they mean to an athlete. Many times we just say them to the student and hope that somehow they are inspired to play the way we want them to.

So what does it mean to be a good sport? One of the major arguments for competition to be included in a curriculum like PE is that “sports mirror life;” or more precisely, sports are a microcosm for life. There is a difference between winning a game versus winning a championship. Winning a game is a short-term goal and uses short-term thinking (one day); winning a championship is a long-term goal and requires long-term thinking and planning (one year). Instead of thinking sports are like life, we should refine the simile to “life is like a bunch of championships.” By doing so, we do not stress the immediate goal; we place more emphasis on the long term. If our students have good character, they will have a better opportunity to win as many “championships of life” as they can.

There are more reasons why we want to stress long term thinking over short. We want to teach our students, from a very early age, that it is more important to play well with others, and not to focus on the outcome of one game. A student who plays well with others is more fun to play with, which means they will have more friends, and coaches will like them more. It is not worth compromising being a good teammate to win one game because that might jeopardize how teammates coaches perceive that player for a long time. A good sport really means, “value the long term goal of playing well with others over a short term goal of victory.” If taken to heart, that means a young student will not only try to include others as best as possible, but avoid cheating as well. We have all seen the difference between a successful athlete we consider “a role model,” and the “win at all cost” narcissist. If you are an NBA fan, a good example would be Stephen Curry, an excellent teammate, world champion, and multiple MVP, versus Kobe Bryant, world champion, multiple MVP, but almost universally despised as a teammate and seen as a “ball hog.”

The flipside of being a good sport also means that we lose with grace. Losing with grace means that we accept the defeat and do not blame anyone else for the result. By accepting the defeat, we may move towards improvement, and this requires honesty on why one was defeated in the first place. The key is taking responsibility for the outcome and then the course one will take in correcting that for next time, which is the definition of grit and resilience.

Finally, we want our athlete to understand that when they are victorious, it is not over their opponent, but actually over the lesser version of themselves. Any competition we engage in is actually against ourselves, and we are striving to be a product of improvement. Our opponents help us understand how much we have improved when they compete at their best. When competitors are close in skill level, one will see the best performance from the athletes.

So Can Competition Be Successfully Implemented?

Like lessons in the classroom, the Montessori guide or PE teacher decides when students are ready for competition through observation. Younger students, especially in the beginning of the year, are not ready for the full impact of competitive games and sports. Competition should be introduced slowly and not against other people, but against a task or a standard. For example, the students can play a game where the class is trying to complete a task together in under a certain amount of time. The students are going to feel the pressure of trying to complete the task similar to the pressure of trying to defeat an opponent, but the opponent is the task and time allotted for completion. This prevents students from getting angry at each other and using terms like “cheater,” because their opponent is not another student, and the task is collaborative. Another way to modify this is to have a group compete against a standard, which means to complete a task with various degrees of completion. This is still not direct competition with another student, but allows the students to have a more nuanced way of assessing their performance.         

As the students become older, the Montessori guide or PE teacher can begin inserting games that have teams or groups competing against each other. It is important that these games have rounds to them, or at least the teacher should periodically stop the game for debriefing. After a round, the teacher can ask the team that is winning “What made you successful?” and ask the team that didn’t win “How can you improve for the next round?” During this time, the teacher can also give strategies to help the teams, and if need be, either switch the players positions, or even make new teams to make closer competition.

As the classroom studies world cultures, the Montessori guide and PE teacher will want to play some of the sports of that culture. Before playing the sport with all the rules and scoring systems, the teacher should make sure that the students have ample time to practice the skills of the sport. One of the biggest reasons one avoids competition is because they do not feel they have an adequate skill set to compete against others. If a student feels like a fish out of water, they will not participate. Take the time to make sure that all the students understand the fundamental movement patterns and rules to the sport before attempting to play the sport. I highly encourage playing simplified and slowed down versions of the sport to build confidence in the students.

Finally, emphasize at every age that sport is meant to be fun. It is only fun if people are being good teammates and are playing by the rules. This goes back to our explanations of what it means to be a good sport, and this should be explained to the students often. Fun does not mean easy, and if a student is not having fun, assess whether the student needs more practice at a skill, or the teams need to be manipulated in a manner to make the competition closer between the groups competing.

Competition has its place in Montessori Physical Education. We know that competition has valuable lessons for our students, but it is incredibly hard to teach it well. Because of the difficulty, some would subscribe to avoiding it all together. However, we do not avoid the lessons that are difficult to teach for us in the classroom. We try our best, and we get better at it the more we present it to the students. We need to view the concept of competition in the same way. Use your powers of observation to determine when your students are ready, and do your best to introduce the concept slowly so that the student has a chance for mastery as they get more practice. Be a good role model for your students and engage them in critical thinking and deep conversation about the meaning of competition. Do your best today, and then analyze how you can do better tomorrow, and through this method your students will have the tools available for them to make themselves into “good sports.”