The Trouble with Self Esteem

By Max Fawcett | August 18, 2008


When Canadian wrestler Carol Hunyh outpointed Japan’s Chiharu Icho and ended Canada’s eight day medal drought on Saturday, she also removed a substantial weight that the team’s officials had
been dragging around Beijing since the start of the games. Yet for the millions of Canadians who endured that first week’s string of seventeenth place finishes and second round eliminations to Turkenistani athletes, the lasting image they’ll take from the Beijing Games won’t be Hunyh’s gold medal or the others
that the team wins but instead the Canadian athletes describing their nineteenth place finish in the second heat not with shame or embarrassment but pride. This will be remembered as the personal best Olympics, a games where winning seems to matter less than feeling good about your performance, a games where personal or national records are more prized commodities than gold, silver, or bronze.

There are two logical doorsteps on which to lay the blame for this absurd attitude towards performance and achievement. There is that of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which failed to establish a culture of winning and excellence, and those of the ministers and representatives responsible for amateur sport in the federal and provincial governments who failed to adequately fund our athletes. But as evolutionary biologist and author Jared Diamond would say, these are the proximate causes of the problem rather than the ultimate ones. The real culprits are right here in Canada, the parents and grandparents of our
underperforming athletes as well as the people who phone call-in shows and write angry letters to the editor about them. They are, after all, the architects of the self-esteem revolution.

The self-esteem revolution began, as most do, with the best of intentions. Some twenty years ago, when most of Canada’s athletes were still in diapers, their Baby Boomer parents shared a belief that building their egos up with praise and reward, even on occasions when it was neither justified nor deserved, was
better than tearing it down with unreasonably high standards and expectations underwritten by the threat of physical punishment, the child-rearing method to which most of their parents subscribed. Rather than being reminded of the importance of being seen and not heard, their children were instead encouraged to be both seen and heard and, if at all possible, at the same time. Meanwhile, in order to shield their children from the intolerable possibility of failure, most parents, as New Yorker writer
Adam Gopnik describes in Through the Children’s Gate, “become their Sherpas, carrying their equipment, checking their oxygen supply, hoisting them up the peak and telling them they did it all
themselves, just as generations of Sherpas did for generations of Englishmen.”

These values spread naturally enough to the public school systems, where the demands of a student’s self-esteem increasingly took precedence over those of their education and where being right was secondary to feeling right. Schools were transformed from sites of learning and evaluation to a series of emotional safe houses where the egos of its inhabitants were protected at any cost, and those
values naturally migrated to the highest levels of our education system, where they’ve transformed students from humble, and frequently humbled, seekers of knowledge and wisdom to clients awaiting the delivery of a product. Failure is, according to Jay Teitel’s 2008 Walrus article, no longer a realistic outcome, and grade inflation is as banal a reality of post-secondary life as binge drinking and experimentation with drugs.

That these values made the trip across the Pacific Oceans isn’t, therefore, terribly surprising. Yes, the tradition of athletes offering vague, banal platitudes about doing their best and trying hard is almost as long as the Olympic Games themselves. But as anyone who has listened to talk radio over the past few days appreciates, the competitive nonchalance of Canada’s Olympic team is of a different quality. Whereas previous generations of athletes might have paid lip service to the virtues of competition and the talents of their competitors it’s unlikely that they would actually believe those words and less likely still that they would have been as conspicuously willing and enthusiastic to do so as this year’s team. But the natural instincts of this year’s athletes, to see success in failure and self-worth in the mere exertion of effort, are rotten fruits of the self-esteem revolution that their parents embarked upon twenty
years ago. If it wants to improve its medal haul in 2010, the Canadian Olympic Committee might want to adjust their athletes’s training programs to include a few more sessions with their sports psychologist.

Toronto, August 20th – 750 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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