Thursday, October 30, 2014

4 reasons to rethink competition in children's sport

"The race to win turns us all into losers."
-Alfie Kohn

There is an enormous gap between what we know and what we do. Too often what we admire and aspire to does not align with our actions. Sometimes this is true in school -- sometimes it's true in sport. 

Here are 4 reasons why we need to seriously rethink how keeping score and winning can distract good intentioned adults from being better coaches, better parents and better people.

1. Adults should not be fans while children play sports because fans are not expected to do the right thing. Consider this: A "fan" is short for a "fanatic" which literally means a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion, politics or sports. The origin of the word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus which means "mad, furious, zealous, frantic, and characterized by excessive enthusiasm".

Too often "fans" are unable to control their passion and emotions for winning and defeating others. Too often fans don't understand that excellence and winning are products of positive participation and learning, and that an intense focus on winning comes at the expense of learning and having fun.

If you only cheer, encourage or support your own child or your own team, or actively cheer against other people's children, you are not only a bad parent -- you are a bad person. "It takes a village to raise a child" applies to sport just as much as it applies to school and community. If it would be wrong for teachers in schools or parents at home to be fanatics in favour of a select few children, what makes it right in children's sport?

Adults should be less like fans and more like coaches or teachers for every child, regardless of whether they are your child or if they are on your team. Coaches and teachers, unlike fans, are associated with an entirely different set of characteristics -- they have integrity and are unconditionally supportive and encouraging while making decisions that are in every child's best interest.

2. The problem with keeping score for young children is that adults get distracted by winning at the cost of player development and learning. Winning can have the same affect gambling and alcohol have on addicts. Just like the gambler who forgets about their loved one's while sitting at the blackjack table, coaches, parents and athletes tend to forget about having fun and learning the game when winning becomes the point of sport.

The point of school and sport is to learn and have fun -- regardless of the score or the situation. We place children in classes like language arts and sports like baseball not because they are already good at reading and running, but because we believe reading and running are important for all children to learn to love, regardless of their ability. If we coach differently when the game "counts", we teach children that winning counts more than learning and having fun.

You do not teach children to win by keeping score -- you teach children to win by coaching them to love to learn the game.

Competition is for the strong -- sport and school should be for all children. See the problem?

3. Too often all of the statistics, standings and awards cheapen the games we love. Out of one side of our mouths we say that there is no "I" in team, and yet too many sports relish the opportunity to rank and sort teams and athletes. Too many teams keep statistics and records. Too many teams have Most Valuable Player awards, and too many tournaments have A Finals. All of this counting and quantifying leads us to compare and rank children in ways that we shouldn't be doing at all.

Competition is a zero-sum game which by definition means that one person or team can succeed only if others fail. Sports can be naturally competitive enough without adults adding more emphasis on winning arbitrary and artificial awards. If we want children to play sports for the right reasons, we need to stop awarding them and just let them play.

4. The purpose of sport is more sport. Whether you are 7, 37 or 77 -- whether you believe you can win or not, we want children and adult's alike to maintain a sustainable healthy, active and pro-social life-style. 

When we convince children that the purpose of sport is winning artificially scarce awards, we encourage too many children to play for the wrong reasons and others to quit. As an athlete, teacher, coach and parent, it is my experience that the children who play sports through out their childhood believe they have a chance at winning and the children who quit believe they will lose. And yet ironically, the children who play sports into their adulthood, while balancing family and work, are those who figure out that winning has little or nothing to do with why they play.

So what do we do when we want to raise a noncompetitive child in a competitive world? 

I did not become a teacher, a coach or a father so that I could merely prepare children to live in a cruel and cut-throat world. I became a teacher so that I could help children grow up and make the world a better place. Yes, the real world is full of competition that makes winners and losers out of everyone, but we don't need to immerse children in competition to learn this. When we teach children about racism, we don't immerse them in racism. I refuse to subscribe to the notion that because children will one day grow up and have bad things done to them that means we need to do bad things to them in school to get them ready for it.

Alfie Kohn makes a solid case against competition and offers 4 ways to minimize the damage:
  • Avoid comparing a child's performance to that of a sibling, a classmate, or yourself as a child.
  • Don't use contests ("Who can dry the dishes fastest?") around the house. Watch your use of language ("Who's the best little girl in the whole wide world?") that reinforces competitive attitudes.
  • Never make your love or acceptance conditional on a child's performance. It's not enough to say, "As long as you did your best, honey" if the child learns that Mommy's attitude about her is quite different when she has triumphed over her peers.
  • Be aware of your power as a model. If you need to beat others, your child will learn that from you regardless of what you say. The lesson will be even stronger if you use your child to provide you with vicarious victories. 
Raising healthy, happy, productive children goes hand in hand with creating a better society. The first step to achieving both is recognizing that our belief in the value of competition is built on myths. There are better ways for our children -- and for us -- to work and play and live.

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