June 10, 2008

Healthy Competition in 4-H

By Richard Livingstone, 4-H Youth Mentor

Power of 4-H logo Competition in 4-H is about as American as apple pie. In a society surrounded by competition it is important to emphasize the need for healthy competition and foster an environment in which to do so. Adults face competition in the workplace every day when finding and keeping jobs. However youth face competition at school, in academics, during extracurricular activities, and sports. Competition – where someone wins and others lose – as referenced in the Journal of Extension, is a significant part of American culture according to Robert J. Fetsch; Professor and Extension Specialist at Colorado State University and Raymond K. Yang; Professor at Colorado State University.

In that same publication proponents of competition claim that it contributes to learned democratic values, combats juvenile delinquency, and promotes physical fitness and learning. Opponents argue that competition decreases self-esteem and fosters individualism rather than cooperation—“the increasing complexity of social conditions in our local communities, states, nation, and world demand that we learn to live cooperatively.”

In an additional article titled “Competition and Cooperation: Helping Youth Strike a Balance” Karen L. Hinton sites “striving to achieve a goal is a productive form of competition where success is measured in growth and not by a ribbon or trophy. Individual differences are allowed for and individuals can build on their personal abilities, knowledge, and skills.” Karen bullets a few items in which competition becomes more effective if:

  • Winning is not stressed
  • Anxiety levels are low and the competition is used as an energy release or just for fun
  • It is used to increase performance or retention in simple drills or speed-related tasks for personal improvement
  • All participants believe they have a reasonable chance to win
  • Clear, specific rules are given and answers are available

  • Participants can monitor their own progress and grow through the experience
  • Guided by caring, sensitive, and informed adults
  • Results are not over-generalized and winning or losing does not make you a better or worse person

As referenced in the above bulleted list, competition only becomes negative when winning is the overriding goal. In many studies youth, however, rarely cite winning as a reason for participating. More often learning new skills or physical competence, being with friends in a group, fun and excitement, or staying in shape are reasons for their involvement.

In a study of the Attitudes of 4-H Participants About 4-H Competitive Events in the Journal of Extension conclusions and recommendations indicate that 4-H participants have positive attitudes about 4-H competitive events, as evidenced by strong agreement for statements that were positive and disagreement for statements that were negative. A closer examination of each statement suggests that 4-H participants believe that 4-H competitive events have benefits. Those youth who participated in 4-H events tended to place high value on competition compared to non-participants.

Volume 40 Number 3 of the Journal of Extension titled “The Effect of Competitive and Cooperative Learning Preferences on Children’s Self-Perceptions: A comparison on 4-H and Non 4-H Members” lists recommendations about what would a 4-H agent want to know about valuing competition, team learning, and cooperation and they include:
  • All programming and competitive events should be revisited and modified to correspond with current findings in research, especially related to competition and cooperation
  • Grade 3-5 4-H Club members (especially boys) should be provided more cooperative learning experiences and fewer competitive learning experiences
  • Parents of 4-H members are urged to continue to provide their unconditional parental support to their children—whether their projects place 1st or 4th. If they are supported either way, they grow in self-competence and self-worth
Much like in an article written by Caroline Payne and Kate Fogarty graduate student and associate professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Science, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, IFAS, University of Florida titled The Importance of Youth Involvement in Sports, competition is essential in culminating a youth’s experience and growth in team sports activities just like 4-H competitive events. 4-H competitive events provide numerous opportunities for children and teenagers to grow socially, emotionally, and physically. Furthermore, they also allow youth to learn and practice in a competitive environment. While 4-H events may increase children’s positive social interaction with adults and one another, they can also create stressful environments for children. For example, adults may place unrealistic pressure on their children to perform. Parents and children must find a balance in regards to how many extracurricular activities children participate in. 4-H event participation can be an amazing tool that helps children grow and succeed in their everyday lives and in the future.


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