by Leslie Goldman
One thing is for sure: kids’ sports are doomed. Why they’re doomed, however, depends on who you’re talking to. It might be due to the fact that sports today are hypercompetitive, high-stakes affairs where winning has become the only thing that matters. Parents falsify birth certificates and pick fights in the parking lots. Kids are forced to train too long and compete too often, taking all the fun out of the game─and isn’t that the whole point of sports?
Then, of course, there’s the fact that kids today are too soft, and sports have become an unstructured joke. Coaches aren’t even allowed to critique a kid’s technique for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. No one keeps score, everyone gets a turn at bat, and there are no winners or losers. In an effort to protect kids; feelings, important lessons about character, hard work, and winning and losing disappear─and isn’t that the whole point of sports?
As it turns out, parents who complain that toothless, scoreless sporting games will ruin children forever may be protesting a bit too much─as are parents who worry that little Jimmy will be forever scarred if he doesn't win that little league trophy.
Most experts agree there’s no need to introduce the concept of winners or losers when kids are younger, making “everyone gets a turn” sports the ideal outlet. “Before age 5, they don’t even understand what winning or losing are even about,” says child psychologist Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of the book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking. “For them, being inclusive is a good thing. It’s an opportunity to not be fantastic at something, enjoy it, and have fun.”
Keep the emphasis on fun, skill development, and physical fitness, with the goal of turning them into more competitive athletes later. “This is a time to try different positions and identify the sports they like most,” explains Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. “The final score or biggest trophy isn’t the final objective─or it shouldn’t be.”
Between the ages 5 and 8, children start to understand the concept of rules, and they’re better primed for learning how to play different games. "in some cases we’ve foisted competitive rewards structures on our kids before they’ve learned to cooperate, and cooperation is the foundation of ethical competition," says Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "Unless they have those kind of experiences, then they’re going to turn into difficult to coach 12-year-olds."
But after a certain age, sports aren’t just about fun and games. They are acritical tool to teaching kids about discipline, hard work, and winning and losing. By 10, kids are ready to start keeping score─and parents can encourage healthy competition in the form of club sports, travel teams, and junior high/high school athletics. This is when they take the early lessons about coordination and teamwork learned by goofing around on the softball field and move on to the next steps, both emotionally and athletically.
"We all have goals that are blocked," says , professor ofpsychology at Tufts University. "Do we fold up our tent and go home,or do we find a new goal, a new route to the goal and show resistancein the face of loss? It's a skill we need we’re dating, studying, andapplying for jobs, and its something kids learn on the field ofsports." Like it or not, he says, life keeps score, and "At some point,we have to learn how to deal with loss like a mature adult." Learningon the playing field, where stakes aren't life or death (right, Dad?)is a good way to prepare for future victories and defeats in the gameof life.
And what of the notion that by competing in sports where better players shine, kids’ feelings will be hurt or they’ll lose interest? Considering “kids’ feelings could get hurt by getting the wrong cupcake,” Chansky says this is not a good reason for avoiding “winners and losers” sports. “Kids are going to lose in life. If we explain that is a terrible thing, they’re going to become competition-avoidant.” Instead, use the opportunity to instill meaning in winning and losing: “It is going to feel bad to lose─at first─but it’s just part of playing the game and everyone goes through it,” she says. “The big picture is the way we improve at anything, is by trying, by working at it.”
And remember, children are highly resilient. As Chansky point out, most parents have exhausted themselves consoling a child after some major disappointment, only to see them do a total 180, laughing and playing two minutes later. Before you let a recently struck-out player quit the team in a huff, ask her how her favorite pro would handle the loss. Remember: Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity as a high-school sophomore. “If we want kids to see how they can ride out disappointment,” Chansky advises, “we need to let them stay on the ride.”