The Prize Fight: Winning Isn’t Everything

Competition is everywhere. From the moment of birth – and for some species, from within the womb – living creatures compete for every type of resource, from nutrition through territory to possessions. Take a look at children playing together; you don’t have to watch for long before one takes a shine to the other’s favourite toy, and the ensuing contest for possession can be titanic.

According to many academics, healthy competition is good, whether in business, academia or the family. There are some shining examples of competition that brought about massive steps forward in scientific research. Arguably the most exciting in recent times was the race to discover the true structure of DNA – a healthy rivalry in the 1950s between scientists from the British universities at Cambridge and London, and the U.S. California Institute of Technology that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

The family is perhaps the most difficult competitive arena to negotiate; challenging a sibling or a parent for any type of prize often puts more at stake than would be the case when tangling with someone unrelated. That said, competition between siblings can be highly beneficial, provided it is carefully managed; left unchecked, sibling rivalry can easily become destructive.

Researchers at California State University in Los Angeles characterised both healthy and unhealthy competition, noting that there are several key elements to the former: all participants must have a reasonable chance of winning; the competition must provide genuine opportunities for learning or growth; and the competition should be a short-duration event. Studies show that people who see themselves as regular “losers” in competitive situations will eventually live out this scenario by avoiding competition entirely.

One of the most high-profile and well-examined examples of sibling rivalry is that between the Kennedy brothers during the early 1940s, before John F Kennedy achieved major political success. The second son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, “Jack” Kennedy, as he was always known, was expected to play second fiddle to his older brother Joe, always his father’s favourite.

World War II changed everything. Jack’s acts of heroism in the Pacific, for which he won the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal, drove Joe to fly additional missions over wartime Europe in an attempt to earn a medal of his own. Tragically, he was killed in 1944 while flying over the English Channel, and a U.S. President-in-waiting was lost to the world.

Jack succeeded Joe as his father’s chosen one, and eventually became President himself, aided in no small part by his campaign manager and younger brother, Bobby. The relationship between Jack and Bobby was healthy and mutually supportive – whatever competitive elements it possessed did not have the unintended consequences of Jack’s tragic sibling rivalry with Joe.

In the sporting arena, competition between siblings is generally put to better use. Retired tennis pro Patrick McEnroe reports that, although no match at tennis for his more famous brother John, he could always beat him at ping-pong. The pain of losing to his younger brother, even in a private duel, drove John to achieve even greater heights in his already successful tennis career.

Other family rivalries in the public eye include another pair of tennis champions, the Williams sisters. Although Serena, the younger of the two, has won more Grand Slam titles than sister Venus, there is a mutual respect and a clear bond between the two that works entirely positively. Their doubles partnership is a picture of unconscious coordination that has brought them 12 Grand Slam doubles titles over the years.

The impact of brotherly rivalry can be exacerbated when the result does not follow the form book. A recent case-in-point is Ed Milliband’s victory over his high-profile brother David in the contest for the UK Labour Party leadership. The shock of losing to his younger, less-fancied brother resulted in David Milliband – seen by many as a future Prime Minister – withdrawing from frontline politics and returning to the back benches.

It is not only siblings that engender competitive pressures among family members. Research published in the United States as early as 1967 shows clearly that students frequently make poor career educational and choices in order to avoid competing with one or both parents.

In too many families, there is an expectation that children will surpass their parents in some way – clearly a trend that is not sustainable beyond a few generations. “Educational Aspirations and Scientific Attitudes”, published in 2000, recommends strongly that parental involvement in career choices should take the form of guidance and example, rather than direction. Children should choose their own path through life, free from self-imposed pressure arising within the family.

Unconstrained parental competition can also have unwanted, sometimes fatal consequences. The “Battered Parent Syndrome”, first reported in America during the late 1970s, was found to result in a majority of cases from parental competition, both real and perceived. It is all too easy for resentment to evolve into violence, particularly as parents become older and thus weaker than their offspring.

Mankind will never change to the extent that competition disappears entirely. Today, many are of the opinion that society encourages an unhealthy focus on possessions, wealth and power as never before. Yet, within the family, a surprising capacity for mutual encouragement and support remains. Applied constructively, there is little doubt that competition can continue to work for the benefit of people everywhere – long may it continue.