Why are we obsessed with peak performance?

Over the last 10 years of trying to make a difference to kids & sports, within minutes of getting introduced to someone, the first few questions that I have been asked have been:

“So, do you develop kids who are talented?” “How do you identify talented kids?” etc etc.

The relentless focus on figuring out whether the child is a hidden genius – and if there is even half a chance of that, what are you doing about it?

And every time I say, “We are trying to get kids to play. Because they should play. Not because they should win a medal or a tournament”, invariably I get a strange look.

And then get some unconvincing remarks like “Yes, teamwork is also important. Kids learn so much from sports. So what if they are not playing for the country?”

I thought this was an India-specific issue but found out that this is the same across UK, Australia, US and other European countries. Places where I thought folks were more evolved and there was a “culture for sports” – but again, just the same obsession with peak performance. Team play is an after-thought.

Why are we – as a human society – obsessed with peak performance? Why this instinctive need to check if our child maybe, just maybe, the world’s best at something? And if not, maybe if we push him/her a little here, train him a little there, start a few years earlier – then maybe, just maybe he might turn out to be the world beater we want him to be.

Here’s my take: In our evolutionary history, the male would go hunting in groups and bring back food for the tribe. And in the hunting process, there would be people who would push the animal(s) towards a particular area – and then the “chief” or the few alpha males who were the best hunters/athletes/strongest would make the “kill. Thereby ensuring that the tribe survived.

The hunting process requires a “peak performance” from one of the team members. Else the tribe would go hungry. And hence, our evolutionary, instinctive, hard-wired obsession for signs of peak performance in our children. Will she be the one who will save our tribe from hunger? Even if the chances are low, if indeed she turns out to be “The One”, the gains are tremendous. And hence worth obsessing about.

But today, we are not hunting in the jungle anymore. The “modern jungle” requires collaboration more than peak performance. The most successful “hunters” in the modern jungle are those that can work well with diverse team members. And so, for the modern tribe to not go hungry, the modern hunter has to be a team player.

Today’s society needs more team players to make progress. Collaboration is the largest issue faced by large and small organisations. And our instinctive focus on peak performance is coming in the way of creating good team players.

Play for the sake of play. Recreational sports – as it is called – creates the situations that help children understand how to play in a team, settle disputes without an external arbitrator, understand what it takes to get the team to follow their lead etc.

Playing for glory, for medals is very different. Peak performance sport, by nature, is intensely competitive and hence not amenable to collaboration.

Survival of the Fittest is still true. But Fitness is now about your Team Play abilities. Not individual genius. Genghis Khan is a good example. Building business the Genghis Khan Way – how he built the largest empire in history by understanding how to work with people – and with his enemies’ minds.

“May the best man win” should be replaced with “May the best team man win”

It is time for us to forcibly calm our instincts that seek peak performance assuming that we are still in the “old jungle” – and encourage behavior that gets our kids ready for the modern jungle.

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