When Winning Matters
It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. - American sports writer Grantland Rice
The emphasis on winning in youth sports has long been the subject of much debate. One side of the debate says that our culture places too much of an emphasis on wins and losses, which causes problems for young children who are not ready for intense competition. The other side is that de-emphasizing winning robs kids of valuable life lessons that can be garnered from competition.
Fortunately, almost all experts on the subject agree that some level of balance between the two extremes is most healthy. Most child development specialists and psychologists agree that winning and losing should not be overly stressed at very young age-levels. Children under the age of 11 are often simply too young to understand winning on the same level that most balanced adults do. Very young kids live for the moment, says Sherry Cleary, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Child Development Center. They treat every event as if it were life or death, not grasping the notion that there will be second, third and even more chances.
“Children don’t have the sense of time that we have,” Cleary says. “They don’t understand the concept that a particular game is one of a thousand they’ll play in their lifetime, or one of a hundred they’ll play that year. They don’t look at it as a component of something larger.
“If you win, it’s an isolated, glorious event. If you lose, it’s a tragedy,” Cleary continues.
That can be compounded when they see parents or coaches treating winning as critical. Even though the parent or coach may not mean to make winning such a big deal, the way they act during a game (be it a tee-ball game or watching their favorite NFL team on a Sunday) can easily give a child the wrong impression.
Dr. Paul Friday, director of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside, says that children tend to learn from observing rather than from what they are told. Telling a young child one thing means very little if the behavior of the coach suggests something quite different.
That said, Friday also believes that adults tend to over-emphasize the influence they have on children. Sports psychologist Dr. Kevin Elko agrees.
While Elko feels it is necessary to protect a younger child’s psyche somewhat, he also adds that, “kids will protect it initially by themselves. If you try to push winning to very young kids, they usually will not adopt it. Watch a tee-ball game. The kids are out there chasing bugs, digging in the dirt, peeing in the outfield…when you push winning at that young an age, the kids will just not adopt it.”
In his book Nerves of Steel, Elko warns against promoting the idea that we are only worth something if we achieve success.
“Stay away from stressing the ‘win’ element until you think the child is mature enough to understand the processes of winning and losing, and the ability to detach their self-worth from a loss,” he says.
Experts stress the difference between winning and the process of winning. Winning and losing in sports can ultimately help teach valuable life lessons to children, but only if the processes of winning are stressed – playing within the framework of a team, commitment to teammates, giving 100 percent, etc. More often than not, those things will ultimately lead to winning, especially over the long haul.
“That’s all you can do anyway,” says Elko about the process of winning. “There are times that winning just isn’t going to come. There are days when you’ll fumble the ball and there are days you’ll hit your return shot into the net. Stress the process of winning, and encourage the effort.”
Encouraging effort rather than praising success is another key. Taking the team out for ice cream only if they win does not send the right message to the kids, according to Elko and others. Going out for ice cream after the players genuinely give an honest effort, play the game correctly and are good teammates to each other DOES send the right message – encourage the effort rather than praise the result.
“Otherwise children are walking around, hungry for praise, and then it becomes an all or nothing deal,” says Elko.
Alfie Kohn takes things quite a bit further in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Kohn argues that the struggle to defeat each other – at work, at school, at play, and at home – is a negative force in this culture. He maintains that competition does not build character, that it in fact sabotages self-esteem. “…both winning and losing have undesirable effects,” Kohn writes, “it seems clear that the problem lies with competition itself.”
Shane Murphy, Ph.D., writes in The Cheers and the Tears, “Youth sports competitions are not, by their nature, either character-building or harmful. It is the way we organize and structure these competitions that has the greatest influence on children.”
According Kohn and many other experts, the pressure of youth sports competition often leads young children to cheat. Losing but giving a great effort and executing properly are not consolations to children.
“Our approval of winning at all costs is the secondary inducement to cheat; the primary inducement is the nature of competition itself,” writes Kohn.
Cleary agrees that an emphasis on competition causes young children to cheat, and she recommends that young children play games where there are no winners and losers.
She does not, however, agree that competition has nothing to offer our children. Quite the opposite, in fact, as long as the children are coached and taught correctly. Being a good teammate, she contends, is a wonderful lesson that can be learned through playing sports.
“Telling children that they have to help each other, play as a team and understand each other’s roles is an entirely different message than telling them that the only goal is to win,” she says. “Learning to be a part of a team is one of the most valuable things we can teach children, especially in the current corporate climate. Most work environments are team-based; where you are responsible for other people and their success…Being a part of team creates wonderful life lessons.
Cleary, Elko and Friday all agreed that adults have to accept and understand that the reason young children are participating in sports is for the experience and not to win the championship. If adults understand that, then the process of sports teaching valuable life lessons can play out.
“Learning to lose is an important as learning to win,” says Cleary, “if it teaches you to lose in context…Learning how to lose and what you do immediate after is a test. Losing is part of the process. It’s temporary and you can change it. There is a next time coming, and you can change that outcome...It’s important to understand that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”