What is winning good for?

Some years ago an acquaintance described the approach he used when he took on the job of coaching his 8-year-old son’s soccer team. The key was that at half-time or after the game each player was asked to mention one thing someone had done well and one thing the child wanted to do better next time. These discussions weren’t about winning or losing.

He reported that the children enjoyed playing and improved a lot over two seasons despite his prior lack of experience in soccer. (I think he’d grown up playing baseball.)
I mentioned this story to another acquaintance who disagreed forcefully: “Children need competition. Take that away and you take away their incentive to improve and their pleasure at becoming skilful.” This response got me thinking…

First, competition during a game is not the same as focusing on whether or not your team wins or loses. The coach hadn’t said that his players didn’t try to do their best or to win the game. Only that he got them, whether or not the team had won, to appreciate what players had done well and to identify something they wanted to focus on improving. Indeed, if the coach’s account was accurate, these sessions led to the team winning more often.
Second, does the usual focus on winning and losing help children get better at sport? Perhaps—but only if you ignore the many children who stop playing a game as they become teenagers or young adults. I suspect that those on losing teams are more likely to be the dropouts.
Third, enjoying what they are doing is important for children—becoming a good at a sport isn’t the only reason to play. I have seen so many children looking despondent after losing games. It doesn’t help much when the coach tells them they played well or “better luck next time.” Surely, it’s worthwhile to have a better antidote to feeling bad about losing.
Fourth—and this is my biggest concern—the focus on winning and losing means that spectators—myself included—take the game personally. We feel bad when the team we follow loses—even we aren’t on the field making any contribution to the result. And, if it’s a professional team we’re following, we even feel entitled to speak disparagingly about players who didn’t stop the goal, got hit for a home run, struck out often, and so on.
I think this is weird, but it’s also an accepted part of modern life. Recently, I’ve started to applaud good play on both sides, but I get look of incomprehension—are you a traitor? But wouldn’t we feel better if we left the game with pictures in our heads of the excellent plays by both teams? Given that whenever sport is played 50% of the teams lose, a focus on good plays rather than the final outcome would make for a more happy fan base, no?

Having said this, I have to admit that I still feel pleased when the Red Sox are on a winning streak—even if I’ve seen or heard little of the actual play. It’s as if I am insecure about whether anyone is looking out for me in life. So when “my” team wins I feel that I’m allied with the strong and powerful. Does anyone else out there in SoxMag land worry about the implications of this attitude to sport and life?

(June 2004 contribution to Sox News for Kids, a baseball magazine edited by a teenager I knew.)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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