Leadership / Competition / Priorities / Perspective

Leadership Moment — 14 Jan 24

Competitive Stupidity

Mark McMillion
3 min readJan 21, 2024


Photo by Chapin Jewell/Mineral Tribune/WVNews, all rights reserved. Used with permission of WVNews.

I was talking to a coach from my area with decades of experience, from peewee up to high school. We were talking about injuries and how different coaches, players, and parents react to them. He coined the term “competitive stupidity” after a couple of those experiences.

He was coaching peewee football several years ago and a 10-year old player got a concussion. The coach could see his pupils were not the same, the kid had difficulty focusing his eyes, and he couldn’t walk a straight line. The kid wanted to play (of course) but the coach knew he was done. He told him to go sit on the bench and they’d see (instead of just saying no).

A few minutes later, one of his assistant coaches told the head coach they had to get the player in the game or they were going to lose. The head coach, the guy I was talking with, said he didn’t think the kid should go back in.

Minutes later, the head coach saw the 10-year old headed into the game. The kid was jogging but couldn’t stay on a straight line. The assistant coach had decided they absolutely had to have him in there. The head coach called timeout, took the kid’s helmet and put him on the bench. Then later, he and the assistant coach had strong words and he “fired” the assistant coach.

The parents took the boy to the hospital and they referred him to the university hospital and in turn, they referred him to a specialized head and neck trauma center. By helicopter. The boy was concussed so badly, the parents had to make dramatic changes to their home to accommodate the kid (changing lights, no television, etc.) and it took him over six months to recover.

The assistant coach suffered from competitive stupidity.

In another peewee football game, they were up 42–0, and the coach put in the second- and third-string. The other team ended up scoring two touchdowns. The final score was 42–12 and after the game, a parent screamed at the coach that their kids deserved to keep that zero up on the scoreboard. The dad was outraged they allowed the other team to score two meaningless touchdowns and the younger kids gained some playing time.

That dad had competitive stupidity.

A few days after the game, the other team’s coach called and told the coach those were the first touchdowns his team had scored for the season and had really bucked up their morale. Their practices were livelier and the boys had hope.

Youth sports can be incredibly awesome and fun. While the skill level may not be there at the 10-year old level, the enthusiasm, fun, and pleasure is. There are so many lessons, good and bad, for the kids to learn, whether it’s soccer, football, baseball, or any other sport.

Leaders can succumb to the same temptation inherent in competitive stupidity. Sometimes it occurs on a personal level, (that guy thinks he can get away with that? I’ll show him!) and it can occur within the company or between the company and its competitors.

Inevitably there’s an element of spite. Spite results in the warping of priorities. Many times competitive stupidity happens when someone gets obsessed about being right instead of getting it right. Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits is the first place I saw that laid out but I’ve also seen it in works about dealing with difficult people.

For leaders, it’s paramount to keep their eyes on solutions to problems and great execution. The old adage of don’t judge the message by the messenger often comes into play here. You know Steve, that annoying guy in marketing, the one who irritates everybody? Even he has some good ideas. You just have to get past his thoughtless remarks and rude behavior.

But as leaders, that’s exactly what we have to do. We’re interested in the best solution, not the most popular one, the easiest one, the cheapest one, or the one from that very attractive accountant — we want the best one for the company.

That was my leadership moment for today.



Mark McMillion

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Works available on Amazon.