By Curt Jungkunst

I can still remember standing in right field on our local little-league team hoping that each new batter wouldn’t hit the ball to me. Every pitch another knot in my stomach, every crack of the bat a whirl of emotion, and every out a sigh of relief.

In the fall, I played on our school’s flag-football team. Our school had a shortage of flags, so only the starters wore the flags and second-stringers would get flags from the player they replaced on the field. Coach finally gave me the call; I was to go in as running back, take the hand-off and make for the end zone. The play went off like clockwork, the sweep, the hand-off, the blocks to give me room, and I was off for the end zone. Except, the defenseman who grabbed for my flag came up empty. The referee called the play back and coach took me out. In my nervous excitement, I hadn’t remembered my flags when I went into the game.

Then there was the time our little Lutheran School basketball team from Lebanon, WI played in an invitational tournament every year in Sheboygan. (This might not seem like much to you, but to us – this was the BIG CITY. They had stop-and-go lights and city busses and everything!)  I was standing on the court as nervous as any scrawny 7th grader could be and I began cracking my knuckles. Not the occasional pop, but a constant rifling of the fingers – one after another, on both hands, over and over. My dad, our coach, shouted from the bench, “Quit cracking your knuckles!” but I couldn’t. I recognized the nervous habit, but I was powerless to stop.

Is competition necessary? Every time I hear someone say something like, “pressure makes diamonds,” or “if my son doesn’t participate in kindergarten soccer, he won’t have the skills for the 1st grade team,” I cringe just a little. Today, as a 7th grade teacher at Good Shepherd LutheranSchool in Elgin, IL, I try to remind myself of those mixed-up nervous tensions that plagued my youth.  When I see tensions build during a game of kickball, I quietly change the rules (perhaps redefining the playing field or adding a quiz question to every at-bat) and the game continues.  When it’s time for Spring Parent-Teacher conferences to discuss the student’s performance on the standardized tests, I’ll try to open and close the conference with the strengths of the student.  When a student struggles in the classroom, peer help and encouragement go a long way to allay fears and build relationships.

Like many things, competition is a tool. Competition can be used in the life of a young adolescent to teach values, rules and cooperation. However, though some students thrive in a competitive environment, others shut down. Our job is to identify, evaluate, and facilitate competition so that it remains positive and goal-oriented.

Identify – Competition should exist in a safe, well-defined environment.  Students should be aware of rules and goals.  If it’s a simple game of kickball a, “we’re here to have fun,” statement should be enough.  If it’s standardized tests a more detailed explanation is in order.  Above all, encourage students before, during and after your competition to remain positive.

Evaluate – Rules are important for the adolescent.  In the emotionally unstable environment of the adolescent, rules are one of the few things students cling to.  (Changing the rules of a kickball game may not seem productive.  However, evaluation is a continuous process, changing the rules in a clear manner can help to meet your goals.)  How often do you hear, “its not fair,” from the youth?  Sometimes we have to admit to ourselves and young people that life is not always fair.  On the other hand, this admission should not be our excuse.  When things aren’t fair it usually has something to do with sin, and with sin should come confession and forgiveness.

Facilitate – Whatever your position: called and ordained, commissioned, coach, parent, teacher, friend or participant, you are there to make sure the love of God is proclaimed in everything.  Do your best to recognize those for whom competition is awful and encourage with all the strength God has given you.  Be aware that every word and action can either further or hinder your goals.

Whoever you are, you have a responsibility to identify, evaluate and facilitate competition so that it remains positive for your youth.  So, go ahead, accept the rules and goals, relax and enjoy the competition.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  Romans 14:19