February 6, 2018

Be Intentional

Though both my daughters took dance lessons for a number of years and were once pursued by a local swim team, neither has an interest in competitive sports. They do, however, choose to participate in “Solo & Ensemble,” a competition-of-sorts for teen musicians that draws 100,000 kids from across our state every year.

Solo & Ensemble is a different type of competition, in that each participant is actually “competing” against himself more than anyone else. In other words, each musician aims to perform to the best of his ability at the festival, and the adjudicator compares his performance against a rubric designed specifically for that event. Performers have access to the rubrics as they prepare, so they know from the beginning what they’re shooting for if the goal is to receive the highest score, referred to as “a first.” Every participant can earn “a first” – but only if the clear, measurable parameters defined by the rubric are met. Judges fill out a rubric form during a performance and add specific notes as needed; most also take time to verbally “debrief” with the student.

As a parent who participated in Solo & Ensemble when I was a teen, I was pleasantly surprised to see this level of precision because the process was much more subjective when I competed. The rubric system is still open to some human error – my daughter was downgraded on one song for singing what her judge deemed to be “incorrect rhythms” even though her vocal coach knew from extensive research ahead of time that what my daughter had sung was actually correct – but it’s a vast improvement over what previously existed.

When our kids participate in competitive events of any sort, this type of objective specificity is incredibly helpful in terms of teaching them to lose – and win – well. When children and teens watch Olympic events, football games, and shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, they only see the end result. And in our instant-gratification culture, they tend to want that same sort of success and fame for themselves without grasping reality – i.e., that it took years of sweat, toil, and tears for the “stars” to get where they are. It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap.

And we can do that by finding ways to provide specific, measurable feedback to them as they learn various skills and seek to improve. If a child doesn’t place at a skating event and can see it’s because she didn’t execute particular elements of her Triple Lutz, she can more readily accept the loss without giving up and know that she has a chance next time if she practices and ultimately masters specific moves. Likewise, if a team wins a basketball championship, they’ll be “good winners” – happy and humble, not arrogant – if they realize the victory came not by “magic” or “luck,” but, rather, because they chose to drill rudimentary skills as their coach directed.

Competition isn’t a bad thing; used correctly, it can motivate and inspire our kids toward excellence. But in order to compete well, they must know precisely what “success” looks like and how to get there. So be intentional about providing them with the specific, measurable feedback they need.


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