Many of my colleagues and many schools are training their students to WIN. I think winning is fantastic. But the more time I spend online, the more time I spend interacting with readers and the more time I spend talking with my students the more I have come to realize that we are, as a society, obsessed with winning. We want to win awards. We want to win dance competitions. We want to win sporting events. We want trophies, plaques, medals, certificates and ribbons. And we want to display the spoils of our winning-focused efforts on the internet so that the world can envy us for our superior, award-winning accomplishments; or for those of our children; or for those of our students.
I would like to take this opportunity to come out: I have never won anything. And I’m sure winning is GREAT! It must be an amazing feeling to know that at a particular point in time and amongst a particular group of people you were the best. I was not a child who had a room full of ribbons and trophies. I have a vague recollection of an unimpressive “participation trophy” for bowling when I was about 11 (yes, there was the occasional trophy for just showing up back in the dark ages). I also seem to remember a second-place certificate for writing an essay about the American flag when I was in the sixth grade. Neither of these was a “win”. But I truly didn’t care.
Recently I heard a teacher complaining about her student dropping out of a competition at the last minute. The teacher approached the student’s parents and asked why they were pulling their child out of the competition. The parents’ response:
“We saw the dance at the recital and we know it isn’t good enough to win.”
This stunned me. These parents are teaching their child that there is no reason to follow through with a commitment; there is no reason to continue working toward a goal; that there is no reason to participate in a competition unless they are assured a win.
The legendary sports writer Henry Grantland Rice so famously said:
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
The great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov has been quoted as saying:
“I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to to dance better than myself.”
I can’t begin to tell you how often my parents echoed these sentiments; that doing my best and striving to improve, that working toward a goal, that being part of a group with a single-minded aim were valuable and important. And so I spent my childhood and my adolescence doing MY best. Really DOING MY BEST. But I never won a competition. I never was first in my class. I never took home the trophy. Never.
Did I want to win?…of course I wanted to win. And I am not criticizing teachers for wanting their students to win. Everyone would like to win. But I never was devastated when I didn’t.
And when I started dancing (in my 20’s) I found myself really at a serious disadvantage in that pretty much everyone around me had started training before the age of 9. Now the idea of “winning”; the idea of being the “Best” would have been the most preposterous example of wishful thinking EVER. But I loved to dance and I wanted to improve. So every day of my life I walked into that studio. Every day of my life I put my left hand on that barre…the same barre that supported the hands of brilliant dancers; dancers with trophies, dancers with careers, dancers who were winners. And I worked and I struggled and I improved. And I was never the best. And I never won…a prize or a trophy. But it isn’t as if I put in all those years of work, sweat, pain, and disappointment without ever receiving anything.
I received my career. I received my life; a life spent doing what I love more than anything else. And guess what? I’m still not the best. But every day I try to get better. There are ballet competitions giving awards for the “best teachers”. Really? Teachers need these awards too? Surviving the competitive nature of this industry and carving out a career as a teacher in the NYC dance industry is stressful enough without worrying about being the best. So in addition to teaching my students the technique and artistry of dance; in addition to guiding them in the “relentless pursuit of that unachievable perfection” I try to teach them the value in the DOING- the value in the WORK for the work’s sake. And I try to bring these ideas to my competition students when I guest teach at their studios (which I have been doing more and more lately). And I believe (as do their teachers) that it makes them better (shocking!). And maybe it helps them win. But now, it is so much more than a trophy that is being won. Now what they are winning in addition to that trophy is an approach to life that will serve them and stay with them long after the award is forgotten; an approach to life that will help ensure their future; an approach to life that will make them a richer, wiser, happier individual whether they win or loose.
This is how I am training my students to WIN.