Why are we racing?

photoWhen I began my business journey in 2008, my BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was to transform the system of education by making emotional intelligence a part of every child’s education.  Having just left the classroom and armed with a firm understanding of the system of education, I set out to create massive change.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for my delusions of grandeur to come crashing down.  After reaching out to countless schools to share my program, I realized that there were two enormous barriers in my way; time and money. 

Like any good business owner would do, I re-calibrated my goal and sought to reach a broader audience of youth; an audience that wasn’t confined to the four walls of a classroom.  Recently, I’ve focused my efforts on working with young athletes on The Game Within The Game, helping them to master the mental side of sport.  While there are many exciting opportunities in store, it dawned on me the other day that there is a striking similarity between the current state of education and sports. 

They are both in the midst of a Race To The Top, which in many cases is hindering the development of our youth. 

In the education world, a certain level of competition has always existed, but the proverbial race was heightened in 2009, when President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a $4.35 billion dollar contest to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education.  Essentially, states are awarded points for satisfying certain educational policies, such as performance based standards for teachers and principals, and complying with Common Core standards.  In the end, those who achieve the highest score receive a greater allotment of the funds. 

In the sports world, a similar race is taking place.  It’s a race that is often fueled by parents and coaches of young athletes.  Just as states are racing to achieve points, many parents, coaches, and athletes are in their own race to achieve wins.  Winning that isn’t just confined to a team’s record.  It also includes winning things like college scholarships, Most Valuable Player trophies, or even winning the admiration of followers on social media.  In an era when club sports have taken over the landscape of youth athletics, the emphasis on winning is greater than ever. 

While there are obvious supporters of these races, there are also critics who are vehemently opposed to the notion of racing for achievement, including myself.  Two of the most notable are Vicki Abeles, whose award-winning documentary Race to Nowhere chronicles the nationwide problem of America’s pressure-cooker culture, and John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing The Game project, who wrote a groundbreaking article on The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports.  Both maintain that the respective races in sports and academics are actually hurting our youth more than they are helping. 

I couldn’t agree more. 

I’ve always believed that the greatest teachers and coaches aren’t those who possess all of the answers, but rather those who are able to pose the most meaningful, thought provoking questions.  While I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers to our current educational and sports challenges, I invite you to consider the following three questions.

Why are we racing? 

We’ve all heard the phrase – Life is a marathon, not a sprint.  It seems to me that when you introduce a race of any kind, it’s implied that you must sprint to the finish.  Unfortunately, in the process of sprinting, we overlook the most critical component of education and sports, which is student or player development.  With an eyes on the prize focus, it’s easy to look past the means (development) and focus entirely on the end (winning).  While the adults (legislators, coaches, parents) may win as a result of the race, the kids are obviously losing.

What are the costs of reaching the top?

A critical 21st Century Skill is collaboration, yet our emphasis on the top is clearly promoting the opposite of collaboration, which is competition.  You don’t have to look very far to see the costs of competition in sports and education.  In sports, it’s not uncommon for players on the same team to compete against each other in an effort to fill up the stat sheet or to gain more exposure to potential college recruiters.  In education, this race to the top often entices schools to cut corners in an effort to achieve points.  There have been several documented cases of cheating in schools and districts in order to increase test scores.  Would this cheating take place if we took the emphasis off of the top and focused solely on student development, not just achievement?   

Are the kids themselves benefitting from the race?

I would argue that the answer is a resounding no.  As I previously mentioned, in our effort to create the path for our youth, we are failing to allow them to explore their own path.  There is no room for failure in a race to the top, yet countless articles have been written about the enormous benefits of allowing kids to fail (click here to read one).  The culture we are creating portrays failure as weakness, not strength.

If you were an employer interviewing young candidates for a job, which of the following questions would have a greater influence on your hiring decision?

What were your grades in school and how many times did you win in your sports career?

What were your failures and how did you respond to them?  Are you coachable?

In the end, it comes down to one vital question that every parent, teacher and coach should frequently ask – Am I doing what’s best for the young people I work with?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this article.  What do you think about the race culture we live in? 


  1. Michelle Marcy says:

    YES, YES ,YES! This is what is going through my mind as I read your article. Followed closely by, how do I not get swept into pushing my kids to get the best grades and be the best in sports? I tell my kids as long as I see effort, I do not need to see all A’s. Or, as long as they are having fun, they do not need to win, but I am not practicing what I preach. I punish for poor grades and send spend extra money on sport camps and private coaches. What suggestions do you have for supporting our kids and not following the main stream? For making our kids “coachable” and willing to fail to learn?

    I agree with your article, it is just very hard to step out of the box and not expect the same thing from my own kids.

    • Hi Michelle. First of all, kudos to you for having the awareness to realize that what you are doing may not be the most effective.

      I see nothing wrong with sports camps and private coaches, as long as they are supporting the character development of your child, in addition to the obvious athletic development. In terms of helping them to be “coachable”, I think it’s important to teach them humility. Even the best athletes have flaws in their game that only a coach can see. When you are able to own your imperfections and commit to strengthening them, only then can you grow.

      All my best,

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