Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘no-score leagues

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.

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Written by rkcookjr

August 25, 2010 at 10:49 am

Do no-score leagues cause killing sprees?

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Many will blame youth sports for the, as George Carlin put it in his later, crankier, much unfunnier years (in a line stolen by many crankier, much more unfunny hacks), the “wussification” of America. You know, kids not learning there are winners and losers, and not learning everybody doesn’t get a trophy, and demanding as grownups they be treated like 5-year-old soccer players. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe they sound like Mr. MacAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie,” bitching about kids.

But the “wussification” of youth sports as a reason behind killing sprees? That hypothesis, offered by Athens State (Ala.) University psychology professor Mark Durm in an interview with the Athens News-Courier, is a new one on me.

Killing sprees are on his mind, and the local News-Courier’s, because Athens is 20 miles from Priceville. That’s where on Tuesday a man, on the eve of his divorce hearing, killed his estranged wife and three other family members, burned down their house, and then killed himself. In the last month there have been at least eight mass killings — three of them in Alabama.

Mark Durm, an Athens State University instructor, said because of early childhood training, when adults don’t get what they want they react with “knee-jerk hostility.”

While Durm said there are “undoubtedly many other variables” when someone goes on a killing rampage, early conditioning plays a big part in how people deal with frustration.

Here is the excerpt from Durm’s interview with the News-Courier that had me rubbing my eyeballs in disbelief:

Durm said he has given a lot of thought to mass killings, especially since the slaying of 15 people at an immigration office last week by someone who had lost his job.

“I think we also no longer teach children how to handle emotions, but it is deeper in some ways,” he said. “We are a society where no one can lose. Sometimes in youth sports leagues they don’t keep score so no one loses. When they get to be adults and lose the person they love, they don’t know how to tolerate it.

“You need to learn how to lose before you can win.”

Really? The implications are staggering — millions of children, their psyches no longer soothed because everybody no longer gets a trophy, going on mass killing sprees when things don’t go their way. I had a hard time believing Durm was serious. I thought he might have been misquoted.

A little research on Durm finds that he is the antithesis to a no-score league, a tough grader who has studied extensively the history of handing out A’s and B’s, and F’s. (He’s also a debunker of paranormal activity and Alabama’s religiosity.) You also can find his email address — so I contacted him to ask about what he was quoted as saying in the News-Courier.

Here is a slightly edited back-and-forth we had today (mostly edited to take out the rambling introduction to myself I wrote for Durm, and his inquiry about whether I had gotten one of his notes because he was having computer problems):

Your Kid’s Not Going Pro: Is this [opinion] conjecture on your part, or is this something you’ve researched? What is the connection between that sort of treatment in youth sports (or otherwise as children) and what’s happening now? Is there any research you can point to on this subject? … If there’s any bias I have on the subject of no-score leagues, it’s that in my experience I feel like they’ve been used to guarantee the parents will shut up. The kids usually know the score.

Mark Durm: Bob..its mainly conjecture on my part…..to my knowledge there is very little, if any, research on “no losing” sports. Several years ago we were sold a lot of hogwash about hurting a child’s self esteem…………but one can never get up if one has never fallen down.

YKNGP: My follow-up would be then, how does one make the connection, even through conjecture, from “no losing” sports to mass killings, even as a small factor in why we appear to be seeing more of them? For example, in cases like the shooter in Binghamton, the evidence presented thus far appears to be of a man who had fallen down repeatedly, not one who went off after the first time things went wrong.

Durm: Specifically the man in binghamton had an Asian mindset [Editor’s note: the shooter was from Vietnam]……..to my knowledge he had just “lost face”. The connection in our culture, in my opinion, is if I do not get my way you pay.

YKNGP: One more question. Given the cultural norms you talk about it, why don’t we see more of
these deadly outbursts? After all, we lose face or don’t get our way frequently.

Durm: Because “spurned” people extract different level of payments……………..those with the least control(and many variables come into play here) extract the payment of your life.

So while it’s a stretch to say he thinks no-score leagues turn children into mass killers, he’s definitely saying, it doesn’t help to not turn them into killers.

The conversation ended because I had no more immediate questions. Why didn’t I ask about the Asian thing, which seems, um, a bit of a broad brush? My purpose was to find out Durm’s opinion on youth sports’ connection to the violence we see, not his thoughts and impressions of Asian cultures. You can fill in your own blanks on that one. I just wanted to confirm Durm meant what he told the newspaper.

I will say that I think Durm is guilty of what many are guilty of, both on the subject of youth sports and mass murder — gross oversimplification. No-score leagues, as part of a self-esteem curriculum, might accentuate some already-spoiled kids’ diva tendencies — but as of yet there’s no empirical evidence (even by Durm’s own admission) they turn children into adults incapable of handling setbacks, much less ones who will act out violently when they don’t get their way.

And it’s hardly Durm who pins some sort of easy, overarching cause to mass shootings. Of course, there’s the old standby, easy access to guns. These days, there’s always economic oppression.

I don’t know more than anybody else why we’re seeing so many mass killings. It might be one of these things. It might be all of these things, and more. But I have a hard time believing no-score leagues will turn an otherwise stable child into a future spree killer. Or a future wuss.

Keeping score

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I’ve been thinking a lot about losing lately. Partly, it’s because my Indianapolis Colts again horked a playoff game. But mostly, it’s because the fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team I’m coaching seems doomed to a winless season.

There’s a lot of debate about no-score leagues. Does keeping score hurts children, and America, in the long run because kids don’t receive an early lesson in getting their confidence crushed? Or does keeping score hurts children, and America, in the long run because kids receive an early lesson in getting their confidence crushed? These questions engender the sort of reasoned debate you see in such topics as evolution, race, abortion and gun control.

taiwan-parliament1
Typical scene at youth basketball board meeting during discussion of whether to institute a no-score league

In my experience, however, the reason to have, or not have, a no-score league, has nothing to do with how the kids handle losing. It has everything to do with how adults handle it.

The kids on my oldest son’s fifth- and sixth-grade team are nice and are trying as hard as they can. They aren’t worrying about the score, even though in most games they’re getting beaten pretty badly. It’s not like they all don’t know what the score is. Even in my son’s first league, which kept no score, the first- and second-graders would fill each other in on who was up by how much. But when the game is over, they go home and get back to their lives.

I, on the other hand, have not had my most shining performance as a coach. Last year, when I was coaching a team that eventually won this same league’s title, I would yell instructions onto the court but overall was fairly calm. This year I look more easily frustrated, and I’m yelling more instructions that are not necessarily positive reinforcement. Not anything abusive, but stuff like “block out!” and “get your hands on the ball!” I’ve had at least one parent express his frustration we haven’t won a game. While the other parents have said nothing, I feel an implicit pressure (one generated by myself) to will us to at least one win so parents are happy.

Sadly, the lesson to be learned about handling losing is my own. I’m used to success in coaching — for example, my 9-year-old daughter’s softball team that I managed won third place in its league last spring. The kids on this team might never win a game, but they have not lost their will or ability to have fun playing ball. Unfortunately, with three games left, their coach needs to learn how to lighten up and realize that the point is to help these kids, fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls who for the most part are new to basketball, enjoy the game and get a little better at it, and not let the scoreboard get him down.

Written by rkcookjr

January 4, 2009 at 3:05 pm