I’m a Loser, Baby.
And proud of it. A case for keeping youth sports competitive.
My friend Jill won’t play with me anymore.
Of course, that sounds ridiculous, since we’re both a couple of decades beyond getting upset about recess snubs, but that’s exactly what she told me a few weeks ago. There we were, sharing a bottle of pinot noir and fondly recalling a visit we’d made to a friend’s beachside cabin on the Olympic Peninsula. That’s when she said she’d never stand across the net from me on a pickleball court again.
“You were too competitive,” she said. “You couldn’t have fun because I wasn’t a challenge for you.”
It should be noted that pickleball is basically a goofy version of tennis: The racket resembles a supersized ping-pong paddle, and the ball is the plastic, perforated kind you probably haven’t seen since tee ball. There is nothing remotely adult about this game; in fact, it’s the kind of sport that could be taken seriously only by an 8-year-old. And, apparently, by me.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been accused of being too competitive. In my years as a collegiate volleyball player, I’d received my fair share of yellow cards for celebrating too enthusiastically. And at the office bowling party last year, while others delighted in the absurdity of the shoes and the size of the pitchers, I narrowed my eyes, set my mouth, and (soberly) bowled my way to No. 1. And then there was that time I insisted on arm-wrestling my boyfriend. Twice. (And yes, I won. Sorry, Josh.)
In the 1980s—my childhood years—competition in sports was largely considered a character-building exercise. But now, perhaps in part because of the Hardings, Bondses, and Tysons of the world—people willing to maim and cheat their way to the top—the very “will to win” is considered by some to be a character flaw. In fact, over the last several years, some schools have moved toward teaching young people not only that “winning isn’t everything,” but that winning isn’t really important at all.
At Sunnyside Environmental School in Southeast Portland, for example, students rarely play games in gym class that have winners and losers, because, as physical education teacher Dian Christensen says, there’s enough competition elsewhere in our society. Instead, her classes focus on cooperative activities like rock climbing. Portland Youth Soccer Association doesn’t keep track of scores or standings—not for 7-year-olds or 17-year-olds. There’s even an organization, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), whose entire raison d’être is to promote positive sports environments by, in part, eliminating scores and standings from very young children’s teams.
“When children play any game, they realize they are still competing,” writes NAYS founder Fred Engh, who authored Why Johnny Hates Sports, in an e-mail. With teams that focus on participation, he says, “that competition just isn’t viewed as who wins and loses.” Which, he reasons, helps reduce pressure on kids from adults.
The “we’re all winners” approach might sound good in theory, but it ignores one little thing: reality. In life, not everyone gets a trophy just for showing up. Eliminating competition might well reduce hurt feelings about being picked last for the kickball team, but it also might reduce psychological benefits: In one 2003 study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, athletes reported feeling better able to manage their emotions than non-athletes, and in another 2003 study, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that young athletes feel they are better able to bounce back from problems.
Could it be that there’s something to learn from losing?
Of this, I know plenty. While the traveling softball and volleyball club teams I joined in high school were among the best in the region, my school teams were, well, not. In fact, during my senior volleyball season, I don’t recall winning a single match. But I do recall my teammates and I, bodies tired, sore, and bruised, slinking off the court to greet our fans after the game, the scoreboard still blazing a disheartening 15-10 (or, on occasion, 15-2). It was humbling to realize that, try as hard as we might, there was always somebody who could outplay us. Sometimes lots of somebodies.
Of course, those early losses acquainted me with that gut-emptying feeling of defeat I’d encounter later in life as well. For we don’t always make the grade, secure the job, or get the guy. By removing competition from youth sports, we not only remove those first, safe encounters with failure that can help shape how kids deal with future disappointments, but we also establish a basis for unrealistic expectations (that you can always win). And that can lead to frustration later, as we’re beginning to see in the academic realm.
According to a 2006 National Science Foundation study, while the number of students who go on to earn advanced degrees has remained fairly consistent since the 1970s, the number of students who expect they’ll earn such degrees has doubled.
Why? The study’s lead researcher, John Reynolds, says it’s due in part to the growing number of community colleges that have lowered their standards, which to me sounds like handing out the academic equivalent of the participation ribbon. When these students apply to four-year universities and don’t get in, or do matriculate but then fail to succeed at their chosen field (when they fail to “win” at, say, being a doctor), they are disappointed. In a 2006 interview with the Washington Post, Reynolds speculated that such disappointment contributes to anxiety and depression.
Mark Henry, founder of Sports Psychology Institute Northwest, also points out that while winning shouldn’t be the focus of youth sports, kids miss out on the chance to be bad at something without those occasional losses. And, presumably, then they won’t learn how to get better.
Or, for that matter, how to lose well.
I was reminded of this in February, when newspapers reported that a Molalla fifth- and sixth-grade girls’ basketball coach berated the referee about calls and eventually was ejected from the game. He refused to leave, however, and even approached—some say accosted—the referee after the game; the coach was later charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass.
While the ugly episode rightly drew criticism from parents, coaches, and players alike, some of that criticism wrongly castigated competition as the root of such deplorable behavior. That’s like blaming the existence of cheaters on the grading system. It isn’t the nature of competition that creates such unchecked outbursts—it’s how people cope, or fail to cope, with competition. Some demonstrate appropriate responses: for instance, when Andre Agassi waited for an ill Pete Sampras to recover in the 1994 Lipton Championship finals, instead of simply taking the forfeit win. (Sampras ended up beating Agassi, by the way.) Then there are those, like the Molalla coach, who react badly.
But is competition inherently harmful just because some people handle it poorly?
Of course not. Which is why I didn’t take offense when Jill observed that I’m competitive. I am. And I’m not alone: A few days after our pickleball conversation, Jill announced she would be hosting a ping-pong tournament come summer. There would be food, drink, trash-talking, and, of course, prizes. And she’s already training.