Is It Time to Reconsider the Purpose of Amateur Sports?
Posted by Dean Holden at September 1st, 2012
Thirty million children are involved in youth sports in North America, under the direction of 4.5 million coaches and 1.5 million administrators. When these programs place inordinate emphasis on competition and winning, they become detrimental rather than beneficial.
Players look to their coaches as figures of wisdom and authority. This deep emotional relationship and respect for the coach’s authority facilitates players’ transference of moral responsibility from themselves to the coach. A core idea transmitted by coaches (and fathers) is that “playing the game is just like the game of life. The rules you learn will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.”
Some of the rules that are emphasized are good—teamwork, sacrifice for the common good, perseverance, giving it your best—and in the hands of sensitive, knowledgeable, well-trained coaches they can be used to teach youth valuable habits. But such coaches are far from the rule. Examples abound of coaches teaching youth the wrong things, in many cases without even knowing it.
When “60 Minutes” aired a program on youth football they found that the emphasis was very much on winning—to the point that it is no longer fun. The emphasis of winning deprives youth of the pleasure of playing the game. The findings of academic researchers confirm “the obsession with winning is far from infrequent in youth sports.” Eventually, integrity takes a backseat to the pragmatic concern of winning games. Players learn that integrity is a rhetorical strategy one should raise only in certain times and places. The adults involved with Little League tend to be oriented toward winning, losing and competition.
Coaches that emphasize creating caring climates for amateur young athletes, rather than focusing on competition and winning, report greater character development, according to a recent research study by Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
The research study, which was published in the journal, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, was conducted by Daniel Gould, Larry Lauer, and Ryan Flett of the Department of Kinesiology, based on over 200 young urban athletes ages 10-19 from underprivileged communities. They argue that amateur young athletes who focus on self-improvement rather than competition actually enhances teamwork, a sense of identity and social skills.
In contrast, emphasizing an “ego climate” which often characterizes professional sport, was found to be the single most powerful predictor of negative youth experiences in sport, the researchers concluded.
“Coaches should create a climate or atmosphere where kids feel cared about, valued, safe and supported,” Gould said. “These positive things should occur while at the same time avoiding the creation of an ego-oriented climate focusing primary attention on comparing themselves to others.” Conversely, creating an ego-oriented climate that focuses primarily on beating others was associated with negative developmental outcomes such as negative peer influences and inappropriate adult behaviors.
Lauer, one of the authors of the study added that improving performance and character do not need to be mutually exclusive. “By teaching players to be responsible, communicate, lead and control their emotions, you will likely improve their performance,” he said. “Coaches always talk about performing and having good character; the two ideals can co-exist.”
According to Michael Clark at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, winning in sports is not very important to young athletes. When a national sample of youth, aged 10 to 18 years, were asked why they participated in sports, “to win” was not among the top 10 reasons for girls and was only seventh on the list for boys. Moreover, when these same young people were asked what they would change about sports, “less emphasis on winning” made the top 10 on the list for both genders. Attitudes about the importance of winning change with the athletes’ ages. Younger athletes are more interested in the “fairness” of their games, while older athletes become more concerned about winning. But even then, many young athletes say that they would rather play on a losing team than “sit the bench” on a winning team.
Coaches, parents, and spectators who focus on winning in these terms are viewing youth sports as they likely would view adult endeavors. This thinking often results in mistaking the winning or losing of contests with the success or failure of the contestants or even with whether the athletes are good or bad people. Concentrating solely on the final score as the important outcome of games causes people to develop a very narrow definition of winning. The consequences of this are potentially damaging to young athletes.
Clark contends that the proper questions for adults to ask are not “Did you win?” or “How many points did you score?” Rather coaches and parents should want to know “Did you give your best effort?” or “Did you do something better than you previously could?” Young athletes often can answer “Yes” to these questions, even when the scoreboard stands against them.
Dr. Paul Weiss, senior program director at Asphalt Green, a nonprofit organization in New York City argues in the once friendly world of youth sports, many leagues have adopted a hyper-competitive, win-at-all-costs mentality. Too often, parents and coaches place undue emphasis on winning, and the young players, mirroring the behavior they see among the pros, are eager to comply.
There has been a reexamination of sportsmanship in recent years. However, unlike the old model, which often down played the necessity to win, this new approach to sportsmanship reinforces the value of victory. To update the old adage, “it is important whether you win or lose, and it is just as important as how you play the game.”
The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a nonprofit organization created at Stanford University, is one of the pioneers in teaching this new model of sportsmanship to coaches, parents and young athletes. The PCA sees youth sports as having a dual purpose: reinforcing the importance of winning and using sports to teach life lessons.
But when organizations like the PCA use the term “winning,” the focus is on individual and team performance as opposed to the traditional measures found on scoreboards and in league standings. Likewise, victory is redefined as a byproduct of the pursuit of excellence and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes.
Before the current generation of young athletes become the professional athletes of tomorrow with the excessive focus on winning at all costs, and unabashed displays of egos in the process, it is time to reexamine the purpose of amateur sports.