Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Why I don't like everybody-gets-a-trophy leagues

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It’s not because they ruin our youth and our society.

It’s not because they devalue true excellence.

It’s not because they are responsible for bailouts to the auto industry.

It’s not because they lead to killing sprees.

It’s because they take up a lot of space.

Even before my youngest gets in sports, I have bedrooms and drawers cluttered with sports participation trophies (with one more coming for my 6-year-old son’s T-ball closing ceremony next week). I’ve got a lot of sports parenting years to go — where am I going to put all this stuff?

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Written by rkcookjr

June 25, 2009 at 3:58 pm

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

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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

A life full of youth sports teaches one high schooler to hate them

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Scott Martin will graduate this spring from Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver with a graduation cap on his head, science fair awards on his college application and a chip on his shoulder.

How do I know this? I know from the Denver Post. Martin took a break from cross country practice to pen a piece for the newspaper on why he hates youth sports. Along the way, he struggles with the lesson I try to teach with the name of this blog.

I hate sports. I hate everything about them — the politics, the commitment, the late practices, the early practices, the hard work, the running, the skating, the tryouts, the sprints, the ladders, the boring drills, the overly enthusiastic parents, the cheers, the mascots, the jerseys, the screaming, the injuries, the repetition and, more than anything, the competition and pressure.

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Yes, I’m the same child who grew up on soccer fields, the very same boy who played competitive soccer and hockey, and the same adolescent who, in less than three months, will try out for varsity lacrosse, but I’ve suddenly realized I loathe everything remotely associated with sports.

I’m sure Cherry Creek lacrosse coach Bryan Perry is thrilled with that attitude.

What caused this drastic change? Last year, a high school football player in Kentucky was allegedly “practiced to death,” although his coach was acquitted in September. Just before school started this fall, two young teens from St. Louis collapsed during practice and died. Since the season started, two high school seniors in California and Chicago collapsed during games and died.

I realized that we as a society take our children’s sports too far. Excessive parental involvement, ridiculous coaching policies, and programs built toward only victory have created a purely competitive, commitment-based sporting environment, turning kids off the games they love and distracting younger generations from the important humanizing elements that sports can teach.

American kids traditionally are enrolled in soccer by the age of 5 or 6, before many can proficiently read and write. We live in an age when the athletic scholarship overshadows the academic scholarship, where the sport you play determines the money you make. It’s a time in which the only way to get where you want to go is if you start early and never stop.

What makes this piece more interesting than the usual youth-sports-is-a-sham rant is that usually the sort of athletic self-awareness displayed by a high school student. Maybe young Scott Martin, reflecting as he’s soon to make a major educational and life transition, is feeling like he would have been better off spending more time studying the effects of various propeller designs on the efficiency of an underwater turbine and less time at hockey practice. This reads like the sort of thing a bitter ex-athlete would write after he’s spent his life preparing for a pro career, living the pro dream, and realizing it’s never going to happen.

And, in fact, Martin is that person. The first clue came early in the piece, when he said “there was I time I dreamed big.” In the last paragraph comes this:

It’s disheartening to know that despite all the hard work and time I’ve sacrificed, I still won’t go pro. And it’s ridiculous that I should even care about that.

Clearly, this blog needed to exist a decade or so ago so a just-beginning-to-read Scott Martin would have gotten the message about Not Going Pro. However, I suspect Martin’s upset is less about his own dashed pro dreams and more a regret at all the hours and hours and hours, all the family events missed, all the time with friends put aside, so he could get chewed out by some coach for what turned out to be no practical reason. I suspect that he’s not the first young athlete to feel this way, and he’s certainly not going to be the last. Heck, you can go to any field, court or pitch any day of the week to see 12- or 13-year-olds mentally drained from nonstop practice since age 4 or 5, and the parents and coaches who have no idea, or choose not to see, what’s going on.

An interesting comment under the story that I think says a lot about why Scott Martin might be feeling a bit burned out on sports, and speaks much better to the youth sports environment than the self-proclaimed old-school types who say the problem is everybody getting trophies:

I’m guessing that, as a kid, his parents put him in one of those soccer leagues where no score was kept, everybody was declared a “winner”, and everybody got participation medals. Right?
Seriously, I would not agree that sports have become more competitive. I would say that youth sports have become more professional, and that’s not a good thing. Everything from cheerleaders to team managers is modeled after high level college or pro teams. Kids nowadays have to have the very best equipment, and every parent must attend every practice to see how little Addison or Jacob is doing. When I was a kid, there weren’t any parents watching practice. And the family car must have a decal with the kids name and number on it. Plus, it seems that by age 8 or 9, a kids has to chose which sport he/she is going to specialize in. There aren’t any 3 or 4 sport kids in high school. The fun aspect has definitely been lost, and that’s due to the increased professionalism, not increased competition.

Written by rkcookjr

October 19, 2009 at 10:38 pm