We Play Games… We Don’t Construct Competitions
How much of your everyday life is filled with competition? Whether it’s at work, school, in relationships, or inside our own heads, we are challenged to be the best, and comparatively better than. Here’s an uncomfortable definition for you: Compete– to strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same. (Google definitions) The goal in a competition is always to win, which in EVERY case yields a loser. Unfortunately, there are countless times at camp that we set up kids to be losers.
When we make up competitions at camp, we are creating a premise of something we do not believe to be true about God or humanity. We believe that teamwork is the act of people coming together to accomplish a common goal. At camp, the goal is to have fun. The goal is NOT to win. Isn’t it odd that we use the words “play” and “game” in sporting competitions, when you look at the fierceness of team loyalty and fans?
I have a tendency to quibble over the words we use because I have an archaic notion that they matter to the reality that we construct. So I hope you follow when I invite you to create challenges at camp rather than competitions. What’s the difference? It’s really not subtle. Challenges are agreed upon goals. Competitions are imposed goals that represent a false dichotomy. In the former, victory is achieved when the goal is reached. In the latter, victory is achieved when dominance or superiority is established. Campers can issue one another challenges. But get creative, people! You’re a camp counselor because you love the opportunity to make up games that help people be better at being people. That’s why you got in this game. I believe that you can find a non-competitive way to do just about anything.
I’ll admit that I was grasping at straws, but I’ve actually issued campers the challenge Paul issues in Romans 12:10. I could be accused of proof-texting, but the spirit of the Gospel is there. I have invited campers to outdo one another in honor. Campers must find unique ways to out-honor the other campers and staff. True, this game has an ulterior motive: to challenge campers to be continuously encouraging and honoring one another. Dirty trick, huh? Side effects include noticing other people’s challenges and limitations, accidental blessings, and campers making each other’s beds. You’ve been forewarned. Paul was making up some camp-like rules for the church in Rome; suggestions of how to create a healthy Christ-like community. Paul was an idealist. Camp leaders are idealists. What a great fit!
You protest: but Erin, what about creating gracious winners and gracious losers? Don’t we have a unique opportunity to teach real-life coping skills and practices at camp? Well, dear counselor, you are astute. This is a good idea that deserves attention and intent. There need to be established ground rules at your camp about what is done when a competition yields a loser. You can practice these, and it is very important that all competitors enter into a game with clear understanding on how they are to behave when they win/lose. And as ever, THERE’S A REASON FOR THIS! A GOD REASON! Talk about the term “gracious” winner/loser. How do we believe God feels about winners? How do we believe God feels about losers? How can we reflect Jesus’ compassion by the way we act in a game? How can we act that reflects that we know we are playing for fun, not playing to dominate? Please have this conversation before a competitive event so that campers (and staff) can be considering this throughout the game.
It can be truly transformative to practice gracious winning and losing at camp. Consider the kid who goes into every baseball game with the heavy weight of past performance. She is a faithful kid and she prays for the courage to do her best. But her team’s record is dismal, and her coach puts her at the bottom of the line-up because she assumes she’ll strike-out. (This isn’t a hypothetical kid, by the way, this is my kid.) She knows that her parents will love her no matter what happens at the plate. She wants so badly to swing that bat as hard and straight as she does in the cages. I’m tearing-up thinking of how much courage it takes this kid to step up to the plate. And she does. And she strikes out. Again. And her team loses. And she loses worst. She internalizes that she is the worst. The pats on the back from her coach and the “that’s okay, you tried your best”s from her teammates don’t make that go away. In that moment, she sees herself as the worst.
But. But she learned at camp what God thinks about losers and winners. She remembers that “teams” are made-up differentiations. She remembers that last year, she was on the winning team, and how good it felt to smack that ball hard off the tee. She remembers how she felt at camp when she was told that she is a treasure to God at her best and at her worst. And she actually says out loud to no one in particular, “It’s just a game.”
So watch this: here’s this principle at work extrapolated to the nth degree. We divide the camp into two teams, the Reds and the Blues, to play baseball. Everybody bats, positions rotate each inning, and the score is incidental. Each team meets independently to set goals. Red’s goal is for each player to make it to first at least once. Blue’s goal is to make fewer than three errors. Blue and Red don’t tell each other their own goals, but they are written down and given to the umpire. They play an ordinary game of baseball, just like they would in gym class. At the end of the game the teams try to guess what the other team’s goal was, based on the effort and celebration they witnessed during the game. The umpire reveals the goals, teams celebrate the fun they had, and everyone gets a popsicle.
In Christian community competition isn’t real. “Best” isn’t real. The kid who runs the marathon and is the first one finished has the same value in God’s eyes as the asthmatic kid who came to cheer him on. Talk with your staff about things that create winners and losers. Challenge them to find activities that demonstrate God’s unconditional love of and unconditional delight in them. This might be the only place in the world where this kid doesn’t fear judgment– don’t make up a game that undoes that. Practice Christian community every moment at camp, not just when it “fits with the theme.” God bless your valuable ministry that equips people to see themselves as God sees them. Thank you for making camp different.
Erin Reed Cooper is the Editor of InsideOut Christian Camp Resources, published by Chalice Press (an UMCRM Association Business Member– thanks, Erin & Chalice!). She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is about to have her doctorate in educational ministries (D.Ed.Min). Erin challenges Christian leaders, in all ministries, to be encouragers and educators. As you can gather from her post, she’s also a mom and a camp veteran.