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Is it All Right to Win?

Winning seems to have gotten a bad name. Gradually, over the past decades, it appears that our youth sports culture has become less competitive and more concerned with fairness and with kids always feeling good about themselves. And while over-zealous parents and coaches can, and often do, ruin the sports experience for youngsters, has the pendulum swung too far the other way?

The well-documented problems that we’ve either heard about or seen first-hand have led to many changes in the culture of kids sports, the majority of which are positive. Most youth recreational soccer and baseball organizations enforce strict, “minimum play” requirements – which is a good thing. If you don’t believe that there should be any minimum play time for pre-teen kids playing recreational sports, then you should be at the elite or “select” level. The fact that these minimums were legislated indicates that, at one time, there was a widespread tendency for coaches to actually go an entire game without putting some youngsters in to play. In Little League or AYSO or the like, I believe we’d have a hard time finding anyone who would feel that every kid, regardless of ability, doesn’t have the right to participate and try to contribute to the team sometime during every game.

Most youth organizations have added rules preventing the running up of scores. This means, again, that some coach somewhere thought that a lead of 50-6 wasn’t enough, and kept pouring it on.

It is now becoming more common in youth leagues to require parents to sign a “Code of Conduct,” prior to the season and, in some cases, even post it at the field. Why? Well, just this weekend I was watching a travel baseball game, waiting for my son to play next. There was an extremely close play at the plate, (I had a great angle and it could have gone either way), and the parents of the team against whom the call went erupted. En masse they screamed at the umpire – a fellow just trying to make a few extra dollars on a Sunday by calling a 13 year-old baseball game. He was cascaded with shouts of “Call them both ways!” One guy bellowed, “You’re HORRIBLE!”

The backlash from these abhorrent behaviors is that many well-intentioned adults have steered their kids’ recreational sports organizations away from competition. Trophies are awarded to every team, whether they went 16-0 or 0 and 16. In many cases the line between “trying your best,” and “just having fun,” is blurred. When we try too hard to say it’s not about winning, but just about having fun, we only get it half right. Yes, it is very, very important to make youth sports are about having fun. But if we’re keeping score, shouldn’t we also be trying to win?

There is a saying, “Prepare the child for the path – not the path for the child.” All too often, we as parents feel the need to intervene, to ensure that our child does not ever feel badly or is given all the advantages of every other child. But is that preparing the child for the path ahead? In the real world, advantages for the most part, are earned, not given.

Does every young person get out of college and start out with the same job title and salary, regardless of their major and G.P.A? Does every business owner do equally well no matter the amount of hard work they put forth and talent they have? The path our children will be on all too soon – life – is about winning and losing. Winning teaches us that when we work extremely hard towards a goal (in this case – scoring more than the opponent), that we will be rewarded.

Losing teaches even more. When we lose we learn that perhaps there was more we could have done to prepare, and what we need to improve. One of life’s best motivators is the sting of defeat, and striving to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If winning and losing don’t matter, that motivation is lost. And what about the times when we’re better, more talented, more prepared than our opponent, and we lose in spite of it? We learn another valuable lesson: That life isn’t always fair, but that as long as we’re willing to get back up and keep trying our best, we can still succeed in the future.

The key to everything is balance. I believe that at the youngest levels, score probably should not be kept. There ought not be standings, and it is OK at the end of the year that all of the little boys and girls get participation trophies. But as they get older, kids, even at the rec level, want to be tested. They want to see how they stack up against others and where they fit in. Yes, youth sports teaches us about friendship and camaraderie, playing by the rules, teamwork and many other valuable skills and lessons, not related to winning and losing.

But it’s OK to win. And more importantly, it is OK to fail. We all want what’s best for our children. But by doing anything we can to ensure they’re never disappointed, we’re running the risk that someday when that path does, inevitably, get steep our kids won’t be ready for the uphill climb.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.