Monday, April 02, 2007

The fun vs competitive continuum

Many teams seem to struggle with the notion that things can EITHER be competitive (hard core, intense, etc) OR fun(spirited, etc). Probably most high level teams (and, maybe, "casual" or "pick-up teams) have got this sorted out, but for many others, the perceived relationship between fun vs competitive is important, and confusing, in terms of goals, expectations, friendships, and even whether one wants to participate. Is there an actual mutually exclusive relationship between fun and competitive? Where does this notion come from? Do other sports have this "problem"? Does this issue occur only in certain parts of our sport (ie, is it age-based, division-based, etc)? This post will humbly offer my take on how to frame this apparent decision.

I had an interesting look at this at my B-team's tournament that they hosted this past weekend. I had to show up late due to family obligations, and when I arrived, I found out that my gals had been beaten 13-0, and 13-0 in the first two games. When I talked with the team, they were a bit down, but pumped to improve and get over the hump. Now, there are many reasons for being on the Whips B-team. Some folks are new to the game. Others are too busy for A-team commitment. Still others want to be on a less competitive team. Now, from a simple view of the fun-competitive continuum, one could say that the A-team is on the competitive side and the B-team is on the fun side. However, as I said....this is the simple view. So, if the B-team is the "fun" team, why were they down after the first two big losses? Isn't the point to have fun, enjoy the experience of the team and enjoy the opportunity to play this sport in the nice sun of the early spring? Well, yes and no.

I am going to argue that there is no need for a team to decide between fun and competitive. I think that goals determine and dictate the process by which a foundation is created for teams to have a season that is BOTH fun and competitive. It is naive to think that if a team is not playing well, or not up to its potential, that it will be a "fun" experience. In fact, I think that if a team does not set good goals for itself that there is the potential that it is doing so as an "out". As in, "oh, that loss didn't matter...we were just trying to have fun". Lack of definition might salve the wounds of underachievement, but it won't make it more fun. The problem with a team that is not having fun (regardless of its competitive level) comes from a misalignment between the players and the team goals.

So, a team should have, in my opinion, a goal or two that are "stretch" goals. Goals that push a team's potential. The process goals that are derived to achieve these stretch (and other) outcome goals will lay out a series of tasks that need to be completed. Each player on the team should sign off on the goals as a "contract". In other words, it is an agreement to do what is necessary to achieve the team goals. My opinion is that this will smooth over any misalignment in expectations. So, a team more interested in "fun" might set goals for itself that are relatively easy to achieve and are less about pushing their potential.

Now, I heard someone say once that "if I rank all my games in terms of fun, all the games I've won rank higher than the games I have lost". I think my girls have discovered that it is fun to win games, and that enjoying the experience of the team's success is usually a bi product of playing good Ultimate(as defined by the team goals). We still discuss the fun vs competitive continuum, but I have noticed that the tenor of the conversation has changed as we have become better at goal-setting. We are less polarized. Less convinced that success comes at the expense of fun. More convinced that fun comes with playing good Ultimate, welcoming challenges, and pushing to maximize the potential of the team and the individual.


gapoole said...

I'm not sure that the "continuum" is as accepted a paradigm as you state. True, this approach to the game exists, but I think a lot of people have come to the same conclusion you have and decided that competition IS fun. Some of my best games were losses, and my teams have won bad games. So fun isn't just winning (although winning is fun). Plus, I think fun comes from the relationships between the players. Somebody on RSD recently pointed out that a team will retain more recruits if team-bonding and friendship are integral to the program.

My question, though, is how do you "sell" the team on the goals? How do you get everybody in line behind the team leadership (coach, captains, seniors)--especially in a school setting, where players can't simply join a different team. It's even worse without a coach. It seems like a lot of peer pressure and conformity to me. A physical contract feels hokey and unnecessary, but how else do you do it?

Baer said...


I totally agree with the points on setting goals, but the part of this post that really sticks out is: "things can EITHER be competitive OR fun."

I don't think that statement reflected the point of you post, and I don't want to hijack anything, but games, sports, etc, especially Ultimate, should be competitive AND fun. They are not exclusive of each other, and the whole idea of Spirit of the Game is obviously so the two ideas can co-exist. You know that, of course.

Two definitions provided by M-W for the word "Game" include:
1: activity engaged in for diversion or amusement : PLAY, FUN, SPORT.
2: a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.
Definition 1 is clearly "FUN" and definition 2 is clearly "COMPETITION". They go together.

Anyone who plays a game or sport without balancing the two is doing a disservice to the entire activity, IMO. My non-expert recommendation for coaches is to focus on both fun and competition in your team goals. Even most professional athletes will say, even though pro sports is a business, you're still just playing a game.


gcooke said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for the comments.


You might be right that this isn't as common as I think. On the other hand, I think many of the team bonding, friendship, and other important social aspects of the sport all figure into the continuum. For example, many teams will not cut players that have made the team in prior years. I think the decision to cut a friend from the team very much defines where one stands. I just finished reading Feinstein's book about the Baltimore Ravens. The book is about the business of football. When the coaches have to cut a player, the mamtra is "it is a business we're running". As Ultimate is not a business yet, I think we have the luxury, when it comes to putting together a team, to err on the side of fun...if you will.

In other words, if there is no continuum then there is just as much potential to be fun as there is to be harsh.

Well, i think a team meeting is needed to sell the goals. I think everyone on the team should have input on the goals (input does not mean all suggestions are taken). The team needs to develop a written goal statement and, if necessary, everyone needs to sign it. As I have posted before, the real work needs to be in developing good process goals. That will determine, to a large extent, that path that could/should be taken.


I hope it was clear that I was not suggesting that my either or statement was the way to proceed. On the contrary, as you comment, I think the way to go is with an "and" statement.

I think what is intereting about both yours and Glenn's comments is that while it is pretty easy to define to competitve parts of exactly is "fun" defined. This came to a head this past week, when I actually got a bit mad at my girls. We had our first outdoor practice early in the week. It was a beautiful day, the girls were just back from spring break, and it was pretty obvious that they needed to just blow off some steam. They had no ability to concentrate, they didn't play general they were just goofy and silly. Now, I don't have a problem with this. If we want to define a practice as a goof off session...that is fine. However, if we do that, there is really no need for me to be there as, in the context of goffing around, there is nothing I can say.....cause we are just goffing around.

So what is fun exactly? Is it enjoying working hard? Is it partying? Is it playing well? Is it goofing around? Probably it is all of the above. The trick is to make sure that everyone is defining the same way at the same time.


Amanda said...

Goals are important to win the game. It is a great feeling to set goals with your team and achieve them.