Sports: Is it all about Winning?

OK all you sports fans out there. The annual late November long-weekend football marathon –accompanied by ginormous helpings of turkey and apple pie –is over. For me, there’s an even bigger watershed moment here. After 22 years of watching my children play soccer, I’m hanging up my parental cleats. So, as I ride into the sporting sunset, I have a question for all you sports parents out there. And those of you who play or played sports too. What’s it all about: Building Skills? Learning Teamwork? Winning? All of the above?

Sometimes it seems like you gotta choose one camp or another. I have been a soccer mom for 22 years (I still wince at those words but it’s true). And I have seen parents face off in debates about this dozens of times.

What’s my position? Well here are a few little anecdotes for you.

Equal Playing Time vs Winning

When my daughter was about ten years old she played on a neighborhood American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) team. One of AYSO’s guiding principles is that every player must play at least half the game. My daughter’s coach translated this into “equal playing time for everyone.” That year, that team was reeeeeeally bad. Saturday after Saturday they were trounced by their opponents. The girls left with heads hanging a little lower each week. Finally, the season finale was underway and lo and behold, they were winning! The girls on the sidelines were jumping up and down with excitement and crossing their fingers across their chests to lend luck to their teammates on the field. Everyone knew the best players were out on the turf. There were five minutes to go. We were holding on to a one-goal lead. Then….the coach changed lines. Out with the strong; in with the weak. I was shocked and horrified. I gathered up my things and walked away. What would you do? Footnote: The team hung on to win.

Some Playing Time…Any Playing Time

Let’s move on to college level sports. When you get to that elite level, every player has talent. So do you give every player some playing time? Or so you go with your subset of core superstar players exclusively? Sportswriter Frank DeFord just did a piece that’s on a slightly different topic but has relevance here. He argues that college athletics should be about participant experience rather than spectator experience. And I think this has some merit. I’m not talking about equal playing time. But about acknowledging the reason most athletes sign up for a team – to participate. If I were the coach, I would let everyone play, especially in low pressure situations where the likelihood of blowing the game is small. You can always sub out. And what are amateur sports all about?

What Do We Want Sports To Teach Our Kids?

The reality is every sporting situation has its own unique facts. The right decision in one case might not be the right decision in another. But here are some lessons I have learned along the way.

  • Winning feels good. It teaches your child that all the hard work they put in has a payoff. It spurs them to try hard. And when they win, it is a time to celebrate. In that after-the-victory moment, the good times roll.
  • Winning isn’t everything. And it isn’t an all-the-time kind of thing. Each of my kids has had at least one miserable, loss-after-loss season. They played just as hard and were individually just as good on these bad teams. But sometimes, everything doesn’t come together. And that is OK too. A bad season is not something to celebrate (I am not a fan of trophies just for showing up and trying). And kids are generally not cheerful about losing. But they learn to accept it. And look forward to next season. They realize that’s sports. And that’s life.
  • Losing all the time is not fun or productive. I have noticed that for each of my daughters, when they reach a level of competition that is higher than their ability, they transfer their energies into something else where they can be more successful. I think that is also a good lesson. As my boss always says, “There are 31 flavors. Find yours.”
  • Teamwork is hard but it pays off in spades. I shake my head when adults talk about the team aspect of sports as though it’s one big warm fuzzy. My experience is that team is not an effortless lovefest where all the players agree, are selfless, and care for each other. Inevitably there are personality clashes, rivalries, coaches’ pets, etc. Developing a strong team takes effort. But the hard work pays off throughout life – in school, in jobs, in marriages, and friendships.

There is definitely room for debate on this.

Do you think sports are good for kids? If so, what should they be getting out of it?

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