Contesting Theory

            Contesting theory, pioneered by David Shields and colleagues, holds that there are two distinct forms of contesting.  Traditional theories about “competition” emphasize the goal structure of the contest (i.e., the designation of winners and losers) and assume that predictable consequences flow from setting up a situation in which participants’ goals conflict.  In contrast, contesting theory focuses on the meaning of the contest to the participants.

            According to contesting theory, contests can be interpreted in one of two ways.  Contests can be seen as a form of “partnership” in which the contesting parties promote some form of excellence.  For example, in a sport contest, excellence of performance in promoted.  In economic contests, excellence in innovation, efficiency, and service are promoted.  In politics, the common good is promoted through contesting about policies and candidates.  In these contests, the effort that each participant puts forth to defeat the other is a stimulus to the other to improve and advance.  Since all are putting forth such effort, the mutual challenge that the contest provides stimulates an upward spiral toward excellence.  In contesting theory, the term “competition” (which literally means “to strive with”) is limited to those situations where contestants interpret the process of contesting through the partnership metaphor and embrace the quest for excellence.

Contests can also be interpreted as a form of battle or war.  So interpreted, the contest is no longer about the pursuit of excellence.  Rather, the goal is to dominate, to claim superiority, and/or to gain the extrinsic advantages of victory.  Opponents, rather than being seen as partners, are conceptualized as enemies, as obstacles to be overcome.  Since contestants are not “striving with” opponents in a process that promotes excellence, the term “competition” is inappropriate.  In contesting theory, the term “decompetition” is used to designate contesting that is guided by the war metaphor.

The term “metaphor” in the above paragraphs refers to “conceptual metaphors” (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).  Conceptual metaphors are ways of thinking more than ways of speaking.  They are modes of interpretation.  Conceptual metaphors are cognitive tools that lie largely outside of our conscious awareness.  Thus, the interpretation of the contest as a form of partnership or, alternatively, as a form of battle or war typically occurs outside of conscious thought.  People are rarely aware of their use of these “conceptual metaphors,” despite their significant power to influence thinking and behavior.

Both competition and decompetition have their own characteristics processes and outcomes.  The two can be distinguished, for example, in the characteristic motivations tapped, the kinds of goal pursued, the way opponents are viewed, the way rules are interpreted, how officials or regulators are viewed, the primary source of value, and how the ideal contest is conceptualized.

According to contesting theory, genuine competition (as opposed to decompetition) comes with advantages in terms of ethics, performance, and enjoyment.  Still, contesting theory does not hold that the “partnership” metaphor is right and the “war” metaphor is wrong.  Both metaphors are accurate in their own way; each accurately highlights certain features of the contest.  As the “war” metaphor highlights, contestants “battle” to win the contest.  As the “partnership” metaphor highlights, that “battle” can (but does not inevitably) also promote a mutually-beneficial excellence.  While both metaphors contain an element of truth, contesting theory holds that the full benefits of contesting come when the contest is conceptualized through the partnership metaphor.


To Explore Further


The following articles are relevant to contesting theory:


Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2011).  Why sportsmanship programs fail, and what we can do about it.  JOPERD:  Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(7), 24-29.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2011).  Contest, competition, and metaphor.  Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 38, 27-38.

Shields, D., & Funk, C.  (2011).  Teach to compete.  Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, 24(5), 8-11.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2010).  Ethics to excellence:  Using mental maps to reclaim competition.  Journal of Coaching Education, 3(2), 10-20.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2010).  It’s time we teach competition. Principal, 89(5), 62-63.


For the most complete elaboration of the approach, see:

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B.  (2009).  True competition: A guide to pursuing excellence in sport and society. Champaign, IL:  Human Kinetics.


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