Win or Lose, Student Competitors Should Learn to Tell Their Stories

by Diana Drake

Spring is competition season at Wharton Global Youth, as judges select the top 10 Wharton Global High School Investment Competition teams from among the 50 semifinalists and we prepare for the Global Finale, held this year on April 22 and 23.(Check out the photo above: a flashback from our 2019 Global Finale at Wharton, when Filter Coffee Investments from India took first-place honors.)

But in the end, winners are few among a strong cohort of competitors. Let’s face it, eliminations are disappointing – especially following three months of hard teamwork, strategizing and analyzing on the part of both student teams and teacher advisors. Nobody likes to lose.

Competitions come in all shapes and sizes, and inevitably some students will rise and shine, while others will feel left behind. Is it all worth it in the end?

We posed this very question to high school business educator and repeat Wharton Global Investment Competition participant Alex Lamon from Livingston High School in New Jersey. Lamon advised Chicken Stock, a student team that advanced this year to our Top 50 semifinal round, but did not get selected as a top 10 finalist.

“We need to remind our students constantly about the purpose of why they’re doing a competition.” -Alex Lamon, High School Business Teacher

Lamon, who has also advised many teams that have not advanced to the later rounds, admits that it’s hard to beat that sweet moment of success. “When we learned one of our teams made it to the top 50, it was so exciting! We got to learn as a whole class, and everyone realized what a big deal it was,” says Lamon. “We all clapped and couldn’t stop smiling. It was fun to brag to the school administrators and other investing classes, as well. They all supported the top 50 team. And since getting top 50 was a surprise, missing out on top 10 did not feel like a moment of sorrow.”

Through the several years that Lamon and his students have taken on the Wharton Global High School Investment Competition, he has developed some educator insight about winning, losing and playing the game – ideas that can really be applied to any competitive experience at the high school level. Is it worth it? Yes, says Lamon, as long as teachers remember a few guiding principles:

Learning is winning. “My advice is to focus on learning first, winning second,” he stresses. “Yes, I focus my students on the guidelines that are given as they essentially serve as a rubric that the judges will utilize. However, I find that pressure to win can sometimes lead to overly technical final reports. Also, I believe extrinsic motivation can decrease students’ interest in a subject, so keeping a love of stocks over a love of competing is key.”

Pro Tip: I specifically make sure to use the word stock market “challenge” over “competition” with my students.

Educators are motivators. “We need to remind our students constantly about the purpose of why they’re doing a competition,” suggests Lamon. “Competitions are so worth it, again because of the learning. And in the case of the Wharton competition, they aren’t simply learning about markets. They’re learning about themselves and one another. Every year, I see my students practicing their leadership, teamwork, delegation, and creativity skills. Winning, for the individual, really revolves around developing actual skills to take to the next challenge, be it stock market-related or otherwise.”

Pro Tip: You do not have to get to the top 10, or even top 50 to have these positive takeaways; you should be emphasizing them at every level of engagement.

It’s all about the story. “In the end, no matter how far your students get in the competition, they need to be able to tell a story about what they accomplished and what they learned,” notes Lamon. “Without those takeaways, the experience is lost, and whatever they did won’t matter much. I tell my students for every successful bullet point they have on their résumé, or every extracurricular they join, they should have a story about what they took away from it and what they accomplished. In their drive to be competitive, students sometimes try to collect a lot of awards or extracurriculars. But if they can’t tell a story about their growth or reflect back on what they’ve done, it’s of little value.”

Pro Tip: Encourage your students to keep a competition journal, so they can take note of the experience details while they’re happening and reflect back on them when the time is right.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of any competition season, says Lamon, is helping students to maintain the right mindset throughout weeks of effort. Educators should communicate their expectations early and often: “Getting students to value the skills and stories over winning is empowering in itself.”

2 comments on “Win or Lose, Student Competitors Should Learn to Tell Their Stories

  1. I used to think that my family was cursed with always being second. We were always the second choice, second best, and second place. I thought I inherited this from my own dad since he was always second in school. Still, second place is pretty good depending on how one looks at it.

    Whether it was in competitions or in my personal life, I was always so focused on the rankings that I never truly got to experience the process. I never enjoyed friendships or playing a game because I was always so hyper-focused on the rank or whether I was the best best friend or just a best friend. For so long, I always fell second or was not great enough to be the chosen one. My mindset grew unhealthy because my mind began to subconsciously apply that to many parts of my life. Being the ‘alpha’, as in being the best or the leader, is a natural type of instinct for a lot of people. There are typically two types of leaders: one type goes somewhere and everyone else follows. The other type sees where everyone else is going and then gets in front of them. Many want to be the first kind since it shows charisma and bravery, but the second type is also crucial. In an analogy, it is the type that notices when everyone else is headed for a cliff but gets in front of them to steer them away.

    I thought I would be forever plagued with this horrible curse. Then, a special day came along, and the curse was broken. For the time in my life, I was first. I received a gold medal for an article that I wrote for the Harvard International Review Writing Contest. When I clicked on the email with the life-changing information, I had not expected a gold medal at all–I thought I had gotten silver or even bronze. The feeling of the “curse” cracking boosted my confidence because now I knew that I was the hero: I broke the curse for my family, and everyone should’ve thanked me. As hindsight bias states, I felt more confident about my article after being told I won the gold medal rather than before.

    On a more serious note, I have personal experiences with competitions and their true value. Writing the article I won a gold medal for was rewarding, but I genuinely believe that the 20-page paper I wrote for the National History Day (NHD) competition was more rewarding even though I came up as merely a state finalist. While this may seem contradictory, I think that not getting awards enhances one’s appreciation of the process.

    I began to reflect a lot more on how I dedicated so much time and effort to searching through sources, crafting a paper, and spending hours in school with my AP World History teacher to make sure that the paper was perfect. The entire journey also led me to grow closer to my AP World History teacher, who I had the previous year but had not developed a close relationship with her then. Now we bond over the history of feminism, and I have the NHD competition to thank for that.

    Contests should be academically rewarding, not in terms of winning more medals, but genuinely learning something and hopefully applying that to real-life situations or events in some way. For example, I learned so much about how the feminist movement was further popularized by the discovery of childbirth anesthesia. As an involved feminist and activist in general, I loved what I was writing and exploring. It was a more specific section of history rather than as big broad events like World War II. While WWII is extremely significant to history, everyone already knows about it, so I think it’s time we do more to explore our passions and do what we want.

    It is up to the educators to make competitions more about the journey rather than the destination. It is important to give students the incentive to participate in the competition with their fullest attention yet while not directing that attention on the prize. Rather, educators need to encourage students to pursue their intrinsic motivations towards competitions that focus on those interests. This way, students are not only doing the competition to win a big award; rather, they are learning more about something they are truly passionate about.

    This is what I had done with my Harvard International Writing Contest and National History Day (NHD) competition. I tailored the competition to my interests: I wrote my HIR article on international relations and connected it to pieces of activism because of my activist background. I did this again in my paper for the NHD competition where I based my writing on being a feminist activist and was truly curious to learn more about the history of the feminist movement from a different angle.

    ‘Getting there is half the fun.’ is a common saying. The beautiful award that shines at the end of the path has been the source of motivation for many students to join competitions, but it is time to shift that mindset to one that focuses more on the motivation that comes within. Competitions are such a beneficial tool for learning that they should not be put in a negative light. Rather, competitions should encourage students to pursue their own curiosities and passions.

    • Love that you discovered our Essential Educator blog during the Comment & Win! Teachers reading our blog will no doubt appreciate your student commenting perspective.

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