Competing by cooperating

The news has been filled lately with stories about the dark side of competition. Roger Clemens has testified to Congress about allegations of HGH use, while Barry Bonds has been accused of lying to juries. The NFL has been clouded with the Spygate scandal where the New England Patriots have been accused of taping other teams’ signals. It’s enough to make parents want to pull their child out of sports to take up interpretive dance.

But there is a better way of handling competition – a way that not only encourages people to play fair as well as improve the quality of play. It was something I learned two years ago. It’s something I like to call cooperative competition.

When I was manager of my son’s baseball team two years ago, our team was in a division with six other teams. We had four fields available to us for practice, including the field where we played our games. I asked our division coordinator if there was a schedule of when we can use these fields. He said he would send out a schedule for our game field. As for the other fields, he said, “I will not be scheduling a particular team to a field or time. I would suggest simply working this out yourselves.” One of his suggestions was “First come, [f]irst serve.” I felt this wasn’t a good solution for parents who need to take off of work to take their kids to practice, and we didn’t want to waste what limited daylight time we had in the afternoon haggling over whose field it was.

So, I came up with a solution. I created a spreadsheet that we managers could use to sign up for field time. I then circulated the spreadsheet among the managers, and we each took turns signing up for fields. All of our teams were able to have a good numbers of practices throughout the season.

As a result, our division had one of our best years. All of our teams played well, including mine. We also had a record number of home runs. A boy on another team hit 13 home runs – more than any player in any other division that season. I won’t take the credit for our success because we had plenty of great players and coaches in the division that year. But having a fair practice schedule certainly helped. Because we managers worked together, we made our season more competitive, more successful, and more fun for all teams.

Another example of cooperative competition emerged this season. Our league Web site has subsites for each team. Teams can use them to post practice schedules, announcements, and photos that they can share with parents and players. But none of the teams used the sites because they didn’t know how. I wrote instructions on how to put together a team Web site and created a site for my son’s team as an example.

Not only are more teams using the sites, another team in our division produced a site that is better than ours! That got me fired up and thinking about ways to make our site even better. That’s what competition is supposed to do: It pushes us to improve ourselves. This competition wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t shared how to create a site, and our Web site would have had a feature that no one would have used.

This is how cooperative competition can help everyone perform better, whether it is in playing a sport or designing a Web site. By leveling the playing field, we can create an environment where everyone feels challenged, and everyone is pushed to achieve more.

When teams and individuals create unfair advantages for themselves, they really have no incentive to improve. Instead of giving themselves an edge, their artificial advantage is really a crutch. When they are found out and forced to give it up, they will find that they cannot keep up with those who pushed themselves honestly. Their accomplishments will prove to have been a sham. You can see what happened to Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds as an example.

Cooperative competition brings out the best in everyone. It makes the contest more fair and more fun. It also reveals the truth about competition: No matter what you are competing in or whether you compete alone or as part of a team, your true competitor is yourself.