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How Important Is It in Youth Sports?
By Michael A. Clark
Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, Michigan State University
(Reprinted with permission)
|The answer to this question
depends upon who is responding. For the young athletes themselves, the
answer evidently is, "Not very." 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 ten 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 ten 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.
|Administrators and officials
often emphasize participation over competition in the rules for contests
and the guidelines they prepare for coaches. Especially for younger
players, rules often require equal amounts of playing time for all, while
discouraging keeping scores or records. The number of programs taking this
approach seems to be growing. Such programs proclaim, "Everyone is a
winner!" The administrators mean this sincerely, but they often seem
to have little idea of exactly how to turn the slogan into reality.
|However, if coaches and
parents were asked how important winning is to their child's success in
sports, many of them clearly would respond, "VERY!" Even when
program directors refuse to keep game scores or won-lost records, the
other adults involved (the coaches and parents) know exactly what the
results are. For them, winning in youth games is important, and so quickly
it develops that "Winning isn't everything, it's the only
thing," as legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is supposed to
have observed. Adults who believe that an accent on winning is essential
to success make much of the best record or leading scorer; they hand out
championship trophies and name most valuable players.
|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.
|The way out of this
dangerously narrow view of winning in youth sports may lie in what Coach
Lombardi actually said: "Winning isn't everything, but striving to
win is." Vern Seefeldt, director of the Youth Sports Institute,
reinforced this point when he observed, "Striving to win is the
essence of sports." By placing the emphasis on the athletes and their
effort, winning is redefined in such a way that it comes within the reach
|But how is effort defined and
|In part, the answer lies in
observing the athletes at play. It is relatively easy to see whether young
athletes are taking the competition seriously or are simply "playing
the game." The former requires a sincere effort, made by athletes who
know the skills and strategies of the sport and who execute them as ably
as possible within the spirit of the rules; the latter may occur at any
level of play and is apparent by in the athletes' lack of enthusiasm and
|Each performance must be
evaluated within the context of the sport. Scoring points, lowering times
or improving distances are relevant, because they imply something about
the effort made. Equally important are knowing what defense the opponents
are using, being able to "stick" a dismount or understanding
when to ice the puck. Making a kick turn, using a scissors takedown or
shooting a left-handed lay-up (and executing these moves correctly while
competing) also are expressions of effort and, therefore, success. In
short, making an effort to be competitive involves a complex set of tasks,
which differ from sport to sport.
|Moreover, it is obvious when
athletes are failing to put forth the proper effort to make each minute of
a contest competitive. "Games" often are referred to as
"contests," and at some time, every coach, player or spectator
has been involved in games that have ceased to be contests. When this
happens, everyone "loses." The clues are many and varied: the
players appear to be "going through the motions", coaches cease
to worry about strategies, officials make strange decisions or
"no-calls", spectators lose interest and leave or begin
socializing. But most importantly, as Seefeldt observed, "playing a
game as if you don't care (with a lethargic effort) takes all the fun out
of sports." When the games are no longer contests, playing them
ceases to be fun. The players mock "winning" such games, for
they sense how hollow victory is in such situations.
|The challenge is for the
adults associated with youth sports to redefine winning in terms of effort
and to restructure play to promote effort. Some potential changes lie in:
competitions so that outcomes are in doubt.
Helping players set
achievable, individual goals.
Teaching athletes to
measure their success in terms of attaining such goals.
Celebrating with and
rewarding players who reach their goals.
|The first point focuses on the
motivation of young athletes. Generally, young athletes want competitions
to be fair and for the outcome to be in question. If these conditions are
met, they will make a maximum effort. Otherwise, they are likely to spend
their time complaining about how unbalanced the teams are or how unfair
the game is. It is adults who "stack" teams and want to win by
lopsided scores; young athletes tell researchers that fairness is the
essence of the games they play.
|Meaningful and attainable
goals are essential to success in any activity, but never more so than in
youth sports. Children should have clearly defined goals to work for and
learn, and they deserve to be intimately involved in establishing these
goals. Individual goals are much more effective than group or team goals.
They allow each athlete to know exactly what needs to be accomplished.
|With individual goals clearly
defined, athletes should expect to have their efforts measured against
advancement towards these goals. Reaching these goals can only be
accomplished through learning and executing the essentials of the sport.
Thus, the goals become the means of measuring effort; did the athletes
make the kind of effort in each practice and competition that moved them
closer to achieving their stated goals, or was the effort inconsistent,
weak or lackluster? If a player's effort was aimed at achieving the goals,
then the performance was a success, no matter what the score of the
|Finally, when the previously
determined goals are reached, the athlete's achievement should be
recognized and honored. In addition to motivating the athlete, this
acknowledges the importance of striving to meet the goals, to be
competitive, to make the effort.
|Making the effort is within
the reach of any athlete and is appropriate for all athletes.
Consequently, it constitutes a definition of winning that can be applied
to all situations. Adults who use it will go far toward ensuring that
young athletes have positive experiences.
|In this context, 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
|This redefinition of winning
makes it possible to accommodate a variety of views of youth sports. The
most vocal critics of competition in youth sports are the able to see the
benefits of making it possible for all athletes to become winners. The
staunchest advocates of highly competitive sports generally will recognize
the value of setting goals and weighing performance in terms of effort
toward reaching the goals.
|The result of defining
"winning" in terms of effort rather than outcome is to make
youth sports more humane, meaningful, satisfying and enjoyable. In this
way, the correct answer to the question "How important is
winning?" becomes "VERY!" Striving to win and giving one's
best effort are objectives that every coach, player, parent or adult can,
and should, support.
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