Goals and Competition


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Are you setting good goals?

We are a goal setting society. And that’s a good thing. Having goals helps us keep moving forward. Goals drive us to innovation. When President Kennedy said that the United States was going to put a man on the moon, it jumpstarted the energy that made that possible.

In our studios, we’re constantly stetting goals for ourselves to become better dancers. Can you get better extension on your arabesque? Can you get that jazz combination just right? Can you get that hip hop step even faster? Goals can help us move forward, know where we need to improve, and measure our own progress as dancers.

But what happens when goals get out of hand? What happens when goals stop being about the activity that achieves them?

There was an article in TIME online not too long ago called “The Problem with Prize Culture.” In it, columnist Hilary Levey Friedman talks about a number of negative trends in youth activities, mentioning dance as a particular example.

The problem Friedman is getting at stems from an explosion in the number of prizes awarded at various sporting events, artistic competitions, and other pursuits. She calls it “the carving up of honor.” Basically, she says, we’re coming up with more and more excuses to give every kid some sort of award. “These days, kids are first divided by age, then by previous achievement, and often by the type of performance (e.g. the top 8-year-old recreational tap dancer in the country, or the best 11-year-old with a chess rating below 1,500 who played fast chess at a national tournament).”

Now of course, we want to reward kids and build them up, but the over-division of honor is creating a few problems.

First, it’s making the actual awards next to meaningless. Again from Friedman, “If you watch TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, you know many child beauty pageants actually award each and every contestant a “title,” resulting in nonsensical awards, like the Ultimate Grand Supreme or the 4-12 Mini Beauty Supreme.” This devalues all of the awards. Kids like to get trophies, but when everyone gets one, kids are smart enough to know it doesn’t really mean anything.

Second, too much competition is not a good thing. Competition, by its very nature, objectifies people. This means a very particular skill set is highlighted to the exclusion of all else. A competitor becomes the net value of their skills. In basketball, for example, the goal is to get the ball in the hoop and keep the other team from doing the same. People who can do that better are valued higher than others. Within the realm of a 48 minute basketball game, that makes sense. But if you try to translate that “value” into other areas of life, you end up with a grossly misshapen value system.

Third, awards are lousy motivators, and giving more of them isn’t helping. Oh, awards can get kids (and their parents) to do some crazy things. That’s beyond doubt. But an award is an extrinsic motivator – something that exists outside the kid and the skills they’re practicing. That’s why this is really the big one. Let’s say a young ballet student has a goal of learning 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions. When they learn them, that’s a good thing! And they should be praised for it. But a reliance on rewards as a form of praise implicitly denies the value of learning the positions in the first place. Think about it – if, to a young student, they learn the positions in order to get a piece of candy, or a blue ribbon, or something like that, it cheapens the fact that they can now dance better, and that’s fun. Having fun dancing is an intrinsic motivation, and it’s way more effective in the long term. When you do something just because you want to do it, you’re more likely to stick with something. When they’re overused, extrinsic motivators can be like a drug, and can harm a student’s innate love of dance (or any other activity) that they had in the first place.

So what does this have to do with our studios? You’ll notice that while some of our upper level company classes do participate in competitions, we are not a studio focused on competition teams. That’s a decision we made for a number of very particular reasons, but one of the big one is that we don’t think emphasizing competition builds better dancers or happier young people.

What we do have are a number of performance opportunities each year. We do a big recital every June. We have in-studio performance days twice a year (in December and March). And we have dance companies that perform at other times. Why? Well, it goes back to the good kind of goal setting we were talking about at the top. Performances are a big goal. It’s a time for students to draw together everything that they’ve learned and put it into practice. It’s a time to get comfortable being up on stage in front of others, especially for the younger ones. We hand out participation trophies, but not as a form of judgment or incentive. We work hard to make sure each student of ours is having fun while becoming the best, happiest, most confident dancer and person he or she can be. Regular performance is one of our best tools.

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