The Value of Math Teams and Competitions

After reading a blog post by mathbabe from last summer on the horrors of math contests, I felt it deserved a belated response.  I’ve coached secondary school math teams for several years so I have a strong bias that the merits of building competitive math teams outweigh their potential destructiveness. Her post and the many excellent comments address important issues that can mar the experience.  However, they missed much of what I believe are essential values built through participation on math teams and competitions:

  1. building resilience to failure,
  2. developing expertise through preparation and effort,
  3. identifying with and relating to teammates and coaches, and
  4. leadership.

Math teams share many of these benefits with sports teams and artistic performers.

Math contests challenge bright kids to deal with academic failure – often for the first times in their lives.  Those whose self-image is strongly tied to being the “best” in some academic sense will feel bad when they lose.  And that’s good.  Really good.  You’ll rarely find a more teachable moment than working with a bright kid who is devastated because she didn’t make the math team or because she performed poorly on a contest.  She’ll never be more ready to discuss what she should really be getting out of the contests and the community (clubs, circles, teams….) that provides enrichment and support for the contests.  The resilience developed from these experiences on math teams will help foster healthy attitudes when confronted with challenges and failures as an adult.

Several years ago I heard Bill Russell speak to a group of middle school kids about making sure you don’t define yourself with your career or accomplishments.  He never wanted to be known as Bill Russell, basketball player.  He spent many hours practicing, playing and earning a living – but it wasn’t who he was.  It was one of the most insightful talks about competing and living that I’ve ever heard.  He gave the talk at the 2005 National MATHCOUNTS competition in Detroit.

Many fall into the trap of becoming what they do and not developing an identity that transcends their careers or perceived skillsets. Life’s transitions, hardships, and failures can become very difficult to overcome without a healthy sense of who you are.  It’s better to learn these lessons by experiencing failures early in life rather than being unprepared for your inevitable academic/professional failures as an adult.

As in sports, there will be some with more “natural” ability than others, but it quickly becomes clear that the best contest performers spend a good deal of time practicing and preparing.    Team members often develop expertise in different areas of math and take advantage of this at competitions.  The time spent building a strong math foundation will be rewarded when later math-intensive academic studies require far less time to master than for those with weaker math skills.

For those interested and able, there are leadership opportunities on math teams.  Participation in contests is often determined by the interests shown by the members.  Leaders can play a large role in recruiting new talent, making practices and trips to contests fun, mentoring less experienced teammates and captaining team activities during competitions.

Kids are drawn towards enrichment activities with a competitive element much more than they are to others.  Many math circles and camps exist that are not geared toward competition.  However, they don’t seem to attract as nearly as much interest as those that build competitive skills.  Kids want to know what activities they are good at and how they might fit into a competitive world.  By the time they leave elementary school, lots of kids already know that they suck at arithmetic and other academic subjects. Some will respond positively to that knowledge and others will not.  Parents, teachers and peers can influence this response.    Most have a pretty good idea where some of their skills stand relative to their classmates and they don’t need to attend a math contest to know.  It may seem harsh, but for most kids, that’s an important part of finding one’s way on life’s journey.

Just as with sports, math teams and competitions are destructive when kids develop unhealthy attitudes about practice, can’t identify with the competitors and coaches, become arrogant, or develop poor attitudes about winning and losing.  Getting women and non-Asians involved is difficult at some schools.  I’m gathering my thoughts on attracting females to math teams and may post on this topic in the future.  As with sports and arts, there are many challenges in building healthy math teams.  Good coaching and support structures can limit the potential damage and maximize the benefits of competitions.

Most American kids with high math ability and interest tend to have minimal enrichment opportunities available within the school. If they aren’t into sports or the arts they’ll find it difficult to place much value on practice and building expertise.  Some will breeze through school without significant challenge or any experience with academic failure.  The risks for these kids are far greater than risks of developing destructive attitudes about competing.

Useful links:

The Art of Problem Solving

Pros and Cons of Math Competitions  Richard Rusczyk

The Benefits of Youth Sports Jordan Metzyl and Carol Shookhoff