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Posts Tagged ‘everybody gets a trophy

Playing to win (or not) in youth sports, and the fate of Western Civilization

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Part of my reason for having this blog is to wave my own lonely flag for a Rally to Restore Youth Sports Sanity, to provide a thoughtful, reasoned, fucking profanity-filled discourse on the middle ground between youth sports as everybody-gets-a-trophy-and-a-hug, and youth sports as win-at-all-costs-or-we-don’t-l0ve-you-anymore. Perhaps it is with that in mind that Eric McErlain at the great hockey blog Off Wing Opinion sent me a link to a piece from Pajamas Media about a father who took over for a day from a coach who was of the everybody-gets-a-trophy school, and decided to have his soccer team of 11-year-olds play to win.

If you aren’t familiar with Pajamas Media, it’s a site that traffics mainly in commentary and opinion of the conservative and libertarian bent, so it’s no surprise that the piece’s author, Barry Rubin, would have a problem with a style of coaching that emphasized “fun” over “kicking the other team’s ass.” Nor that Rubin, founder of an international affairs research center based in Israel, would see the decision to value “fun” over “ass-kicking” in youth sports as a metaphor for the future of world affairs.

Here is how his piece starts:

It’s something of a stretch to compare a soccer game among eleven-year-old boys with the fate of the democratic world, but I’ve always managed to see big issues in small things.

My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.

He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.

And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place.

I’d even seen an American television documentary about boys and sports which justified this approach, explaining that coaches were doing something terrible by deriding failure, urging competitiveness, and demanding victory. So were the kids really happier to be “relieved” of the strain of trying to win, “liberated” from feeling bad at the inequality of athletic talent?

Or am I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive, rather than thinking they merely need choose between becoming a government bureaucrat or dependent.

So Rubin takes over for the coach one day, plays to win and — spoiler alert — he IS right!

They took a 1-0 lead and held it, in contrast to the previous week when it was scoreless at the half but turned into a 3-0 humiliation when someone ill-suited was made goalkeeper just because he wanted that job.

When kids with fewer skills didn’t want to play defense, I pointed out that these were critical positions, since winning required preventing the other team from scoring. At the end, they performed heroically, holding off repeated attacks on their goal.

I worried that the boys who played less of the game and were given seemingly less significant positions would be resentful. But quite the opposite proved true.

With the team ahead, they were thrilled. One shouted from the sidelines something I thought showed real character: “Don’t let the good players do all the work!” Instinctively, he recognized that some players are better, but he wanted to bring everyone’s level up rather than down. I’m tempted to say he was going against what he was being taught in school.

They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, that everyone should be treated equal as if there were no difference in talents, and that the results didn’t matter.

And that brings us back to why youth soccer can portend the domination (or decline) of Western Civilization.

Next week, of course, they will be back to losing. But I think that perhaps they learned something useful to counter the indoctrination they are getting in school. If you don’t care about winning, you’re merely handing triumph to the other side. In a soccer league that might not matter, yet in personal life, your level of achievement and satisfaction is going to depend on giving your best effort.  If a country is indifferent to succeeding, the opposing team’s success might be very costly indeed.

As I said at the start, perhaps not too much should be read into this little parable. Yet the broader question may be the most significant issue of our time: why should Western democratic societies abandon the techniques and thinking that have led to such great success, in order to embrace failure as glorious or victory as shameful?

Putting aside that Rubin, from his tone, sounds like the sort of know-it-all jerk-ass you fear will corner you at a dinner party, his piece, whether he intended it or not, makes some cogent points for a find-the-fucking-center blog like this here blog.

First, just telling kids to “have fun” is not coaching. If the coach, as Rubin has described him, is not actually taking the time and effort to teach the kids something — even if the coach, like many volunteers, doesn’t know a lot about the sport — then that coach is doing them a disservice. On a team of 11-year-olds, there is some expectation that things will get a little more intense, and that players are more likely to play regular positions

When I coach basketball for ages fifth grade and up, I don’t make everyone point guard, and I don’t let everyone play center. You have to show the skills in practice (and for center, the height) to be trusted with the position. I don’t do it just so the team can win. Too many times, I’ve seen players’ confidences broken because they were asked to do things they knew they could not do. To me, the first rule of coaching is put your players in position to succeed. First, by coaching them, and second, by using them in ways that maximize their ability.

So if Rubin’s son had a coach who used “just have fun” as a cover for not coaching, that’s wrong. Rubin was right in that the kids knew who could do what and who couldn’t, and that everyone would have a lot more fun if they won. Especially a team of kids that hadn’t won a game all season. I’ve coached teams that had long losing strings, and that first win is like the Super Bowl mixed with Christmas mixed with your first kiss.

On the other hand, Rubin — though I know he’s trying to restrain himself rhetorically — is wrong in that “everybody gets a trophy” might explain, say, why we haven’t conquered Iraq and Afghanistan. (Or, as another professor told me, why we have school shootings.)

Weep for the future.

Kids know about competition. Have you ever seen two 3-year-olds fighting over a toy? As I’ve mentioned before, and I’ll mention again, the “just have fun” and “everybody gets a trophy” and no-score leagues are as much — or more — about mollifying parents than it is making sure junior doesn’t cry. At young ages, I like coaching in no-score leagues, because then I can concentrate on teaching kids without having parents worried why I’m playing Little 6-Year-Old Shitface Stoneglove at first base.

As with much in life, it’s all about balance. There is enough pressure in coaching youth sports without thinking that your decisions are going to determine how fast China takes us over. You have to coach to get the best out of your players, but depending on the age and the stated intentions of the league, coaching merely to win might be worse for them in the long term.

I would be curious how Barry Rubin negotiates the egos and politics with his son’s soccer team over the course of a season. I’m sure he could find all sorts of parallels to international affairs in that experience. One possible lesson: being right doesn’t mean that everything goes according to plan, which could result in many thoughtful, reasoned, fucking profanity-filled discussions.

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Written by rkcookjr

November 8, 2010 at 10:09 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

When did the Nobel become an everybody-gets-a-trophy league?

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Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize winner, getting a participation award for being a president that, unlike his predecessor, wants to play nice with others.

Then again, Henry Kissinger also has one of these, so maybe the Nobel committee has always had a streak of making sure everybody gets a trophy. I think it also provides juice boxes and animal crackers at the awards ceremony.

bobbys-cameravideo-100My son and his bowling teammates, with their Nobel prizes.

Written by rkcookjr

October 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

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

Everything that’s wrong with sports

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bobbys-cameravideo-100

My 6-year-old son’s bowling league ended last weekend. And everybody got a trophy.

If that makes you mad, just wait until you hear his T-ball team doesn’t keep score. Mark Durm does not approve.