Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

How early should we introduce soul-crushing competition to our children?

with 2 comments

I don’t often pass on stories sent by an author who says nice things about me, but that’s because I don’t often get stories sent by an author who says nice things about me. So with that mind, I direct you to Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe, who wrote a Sunday magazine piece about kids and competition called “What Happened to Losing?”

It’s much better than you standard rant against the wussification of sports through no-score leagues because it’s not a rant, and Swidey points out:

If you’ve come seeking affirmation for the facile argument about the so-called “wussification of American kids today,” you’ll probably want to stop reading now.

The issue is hardly black and white. It’s true that our kids, in some ways, are more coddled and have it much easier than previous generations. But it’s also true that, in other ways, we adults have saddled our kids with way more pressure to compete than we ever faced, imposing on them at young ages daunting expectations for their academic and athletic “careers.”

Swidey, though his own personal experience as a father and coach, and through interviews and research, writes about the difficult line adults try to walk with children: how to encourage children in as non-pressurized environment as possible without hurting their feelings or discouraging them by too much emphasis on competition, especially at early age.

Does everything have to be a competition?

If you ask the Father of No-Score Leagues how you do that — and Swidey did — he would tell you there is no line. You either have competition, or you don’t. That inadvertent father of that bastard child of youth sports is Alfie Kohn, whose 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, outlines how competition is bad for everyone, children and adults included. Kids might love Kohn’s other works, such as ones in which he argues homework and grades are bad for learning.

Kohn tells Swidey that he doesn’t endorse no-score leagues, either, but not because he thinks it makes your child a pussy:

“I began my work on competition from the liberal position that there’s too much competition and it’s too intense, but if we could just manage it and scale it back, we’d be fine,” Kohn tells me. “But I came to the conclusion that it’s not the quantity, it’s the very nature of competition itself that is bad. So the liberals who say, ‘Go ahead and play tennis, but don’t try to make the other person lose’ — that’s garbage. That’s self-delusional. If you’re not trying to make the other person lose, it’s not tennis.”

Kohn and his ilk argue that any games should concentrate on activities that foster and encourage group success, like seeing how many times you can bump a volleyball in the air.

Yeah, sounds dull, right? Plus, I’m not sure the experts account for other members of the group tearing a new asshole in the one schlub incapable of keeping a volleyball in the air. Heck, Kohn’s own kids don’t even buy it completely.

But as the father of a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Kohn regretfully concedes that even he never started a cooperative game group in his own Belmont neighborhood. And though his children have independently chosen not to play youth sports, his son has shown an interest in chess — “He’s pretty vicious,” Kohn says — which, of course, is an activity built on zero-sum, warlike themes of competition. (Fortunately, Kohn says, his son has recently moved on from chess to the guitar.)

So how do you blunt the bad parts about competition? Another expert posited these conditions to Swidey: (1) that participation is voluntary; (2) the teams are set up so that everyone has a reasonable chance of winning; (3) the importance of winning is relatively minor, so that 10 minutes after the game, you barely remember who won and who lost; (4) the rules are clear and fair; and (5) relative progress can be monitored.

Actually, those five rules have generally been followed in my youth sports experience. I’ve seen these rules violated by both kids and adults. No. 2 is the one I’ve seen most violated as a child — there’s always some jerks who wants to try to game the teams his way (and, yes, some of them grow up to run the draft for your local Little League). No. 3, of course, is the big problem with adults.

And this gets me back to no-score leagues. I’ve long declared that the reason, as a coach, that I love no-score leagues is not because not keeping score takes pressure off the kids. Not keeping score takes the steam out of the adults, which then takes some of the pressure off the kids. (Children of gung-ho athletic parents who dream of future pro success are still going to put pressure on their kids no matter what.)

Unlike Swidey and others in his article, I don’t think that children are ill-served by no-score leagues because they suddenly can’t handle it when score is finally being kept. Kids learn all about competition in so many ways outside of youth sports, their ability to deal with it, or inability to deal it, is fostered long before they look at a scoreboard. Just watch two 2-year-olds fight over a toy car.

Swidey also gets into everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues as well, and unlike no-score leagues, I can’t say I’m a fan of those. Not because it has ill effects such as causing killing sprees. I dislike them because all those trophies clutter up my house.


Written by rkcookjr

August 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think there’s some highs and lows out of keeping score and wins and losses.

    The highs come from the big wins – now 18 months later my 6 year old son remembers his 5 year old baseball team winning the post-season tournament for the specific bracket they placed his team in. It was a fun experience all around. He also had his best performances of the season during the tournament since it was a lose-and-you-are-out situation and he wanted to play.

    Contrarily, I’ve seen parents trying to entice performance from K-3rd grade kids with promises of stuff – money, toy store trips, etc that spoil the whole point of playing (which should be the reward in itself).

    The negative of keeping scores is the blurring of what the important outcome is of a 5 or 6 year old sporting event. That outcome should be building basic skills and knowledge of the sport (and then progressively improving and expanding them in years following). However, you can bend the rules to win first versus progressing skills.

    In baseball, you could stack the front end of the lineup with the best kids. They get more plate appearances, you score more runs. The kids at the bottom get less reps at the plate and never progress. If you have a two pitch then tee rule move the kids quickly to the tee to guarantee they make it to first base or make contact to move a runner rather than strike out.

    In the field in a 5 or 6 year old coach pitch league, put your best fielder at “Pitcher” and allow him to field most balls and then beat a runner to a base (instead of playing as a team). Never throw the ball because it causes errors and that costs runs.

    In both of these cases there are root causes that at least partially are coach and parent problems (or they at least allow them to exist).

    I used to have a problem with no-score soccer – and then realized that the objective of improving ball skills was far beyond what could be gained by playing for the purpose of winning. Kids still get the joy of scoring a goal, but what they are really doing is progressing skills.

    In any event, the adults involved need to know what the real prize is, and not be lost on the big picture.

    I have a 4 year old (who has his first soccer practice Friday with his dad coaching) who doesn’t like to lose board games and video games. Should be interesting.

    Dennis Murray

    August 25, 2010 at 11:46 am

  2. Funny, in that tonight I coached MY competitive 4-year-old in soccer practice for the first time tonight. Also, in the adjoining field, my 7-year-old kept close track of the score in a no-score soccer league. (His team won, 4-2.)

    No doubt, kids can feel a great sense of accomplishment when they win. But, yeah, if you want to keep the focus squarely on learning and development, and depressurize the situation as much as possible, you have to take out keeping score, at least officially. If kids and parents want to do it, you can’t stop them. But I’ve always explained to parents of no-score players that the reason score isn’t being kept is so we can focus on development, and not become tempted to do things only for the sake of winning. Because when the score is kept, even kids on your own team can put pressure on you to do things for winnings’ sake, even if it isn’t for anyone’s long-term best.

    Good luck coaching your 4-year-old! Let us all know how it went.


    August 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm

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