Taking Competition out of Kids’ Sports

Do you think that all kids should get a trophy?  I don’t mean should all kids have the opportunity to win a trophy.  I mean, do you think that when your son is playing in a soccer tournament and his team gets 6th place, he should get a trophy?  He worked hard, right?  He is only 7 years old!  How is he supposed to handle it when he sees the other kids who came in first, second and third place taking home trophies and medals?  He is going to be so disappointed.  Poor little Johnny might even throw an epic hissy fit.  We simply can’t have that! No, let’s just make it fair and give everyone a trophy.

That is an interesting word; fair.

Is it really fair to reward the kids who lost the game in the same manner that we acknowledge the kids who won?  This might be even, but it is certainly not fair.

And while we are at it, giving everybody trophies regardless of who beat whom, let’s also limit the score on the score board if one team is losing too badly.  What constitutes ‘losing badly’ you ask?  That depends on the parent group ruling the score board, but I have seen scoring stop at a difference of merely 2 points.  The kids playing were 9 years old.  Not 2 years old.  Nine. Years. Old!  That means they were in grades 3 and 4. 

Remember, these kids play games in physical education classes and on the playground, where they win and lose all of the time.  Hell, even dodgeball has an obvious loser in every move – ouch!  So this group of children is no stranger to the idea that you win some and you lose some.  Yet still, this practice of scoreboard censorship is happening in competitive community based sports, on fields all across our country.

I wonder if this group of well-meaning parents think that the kids don’t really know the difference.  Do they think that the kids have stopped keeping score in their minds, just because those ‘even is fair’ types have decided to freeze the board?  Have these people ever played anything with kids….ever???  Because I can’t even play a game of 20 Questions or Snakes and Ladders with my preschool aged children without one of them shrieking with delight, “I won, I won, I won!”  And no one is writing down the score. They know about winning and losing very early.  That is not a bad thing!

I would contend that it is actually a really good thing.  The fact is, winning is not bad. Winning is fun!  It is far more fun than losing.  I am sure we can all agree on that.  But losing is a part of life too.  In fact, losing can be quite a motivating experience!  My son didn’t start shooting pucks in the garage until his team had lost 12 games in a row.  What made him want to go out into that cold garage in the middle of winter to improve his slap shot?  The fact that his team lost, over and over again.

His coach would enthusiastically tell the team after every single game, “Good effort kids!  You all worked hard out there!  Don’t worry about the score, we are here to have fun, right?!”  After a while this very encouraging and politically correct chant wasn’t sitting right with my 8 year old.  Almost sheepishly, he came to me after loss #12.  “Mom, I know we are supposed to be having fun, right?  And well, I love hockey and playing is always fun.  But I guess….” He hesitated.  “I guess I wish that we would…..” “Win sometimes?”  I finished for him, knowing that he felt it wrong to even utter such words.  “Yes!” He looked relieved as he met my gaze.

“Of course it is ok to win buddy.” I said.  “It’s time to be straight with you about this whole play-for-fun, the-score-doesn’t-matter thing.  The truth is, winning is always more fun than losing. It is the whole point of playing the game! Get out there and play to win.  Every time.  Don’t play dirty, and don’t throw a fit if you lose.  Respect the refs and your coaches and your fellow players.  Be a good sport, but play to win.  There is nothing wrong with that.”

Developing the drive to do better, and be better, is woven into our western ideology.  The concept that if you don’t like something, you can change it, is a fundamental principle central to our society and market economy.  But I am seeing something change in this value base that has me scratching my head.

How has winning become politically incorrect?  Why are we demonizing winning and shunning the concept of success with such disdain?  And when did losing badly become such a shameful outcome that it can’t even be acknowledged on a score board?    Why are we so reluctant to give our children the opportunity to win and lose graciously?  What is our issue with this idea?

Our kids will need to learn how to compete fairly and work hard to get what they want very quickly.  Universities do not let all kids into all programs.  High marks earn you your program of choice.  Lower marks do not.  Jobs are offered to those who have the best qualifications.  Promotions awarded to those who have the most core competencies and who have not just met, but exceeded their deliverables.

How are our children supposed grow into functional and productive adults, if they can’t embrace this concept of competition, and deal with it graciously?  If we don’t let them experience winning and losing as children, how will they be equipped to deal with an adult world of which competition is a critical part?

As I watch that score not change up on the board, I find myself in a state of internal revolt.   Inside my head I am screaming,

“Our right to compete is important!”

“Learning how to compete well is a critical skill!”

“Allowing our kids the opportunity to experience wins and losses in sport, supports them in life!”

What I finally say out loud is, “Why not let the score reflect the game?!”

I am deeply concerned that those parents who are consciously or unconsciously demonizing opportunities for healthy competition, represent a shift in the value base which is critical to our society.  Such a detrimental turn away from the freedom to pursue, if desired, as much or as little success as we chose to, frightens me.

Having the ability to compete; that is to work hard, improve skills, earn opportunities, achieve a better income, lifestyle, quality of life or score in our game, is a right and a freedom that are central to our quality of life here in North America.

I value this right.  I cherish this freedom.

And these are ideals that I for one, am happy to stand up for, loudly if necessary, one soccer field at a time.