The Great Participation Trophy Debate

The participation trophy debate was briefly mentioned in the EconTalk podcast linked to in the previous post.

Those for participation trophies think it’s good for self-esteem. Those against say it doesn’t prepare kids to deal with failure.

I have a third view to consider: We put too much emphasis on youth sports.

Why do we care so much about the life lessons of youth sports and not so much about life lessons learned from other childhood endeavors, like playing video games?

Has anyone ever argued that the high trial-and-error failure rate in video games hurts a child’s self-esteem? No. Has anyone argued that winning or losing a video game helps kids deal with failure? No.

Yet, we all instinctively know a simple truth about video games: The more a kid plays them, the better he will get.

Play your kid in her favorite video game and she’ll wipe the floor with you. That’s because she has more trial-and-error experience at it than you.

That experience came with no pressure and no stakes. She didn’t have coaches and parents calling out their every mistake from a sideline. If she lost a game, she just started over, tried a different approach and eventually learned what works.

Yet, we don’t translate that instinct to youth sports. Parents and coaches hope for mastery, without recognizing how little time the child has had to master it, especially in unstructured, low pressure, low stakes ways.

Youth sports in the U.S. use to be viewed by parents more like video games are now. In some countries, they still are. Guys I play soccer with, who came to the U.S. from South America and Europe, tell me they spent a great deal of time playing soccer in their home countries and their parents nagged them to do something more productive, just like how U.S. parents nag their kids to put down the video games.

When I was a kid, the way we learned sports was different than today. It was a lot more like how kids these days learn to play video games — lots of low pressure, low stakes play. Why? Because parents didn’t care as much about sports then.

We had much more unstructured play where we played with family and friends. We played more often with older and younger kids, the older ones taught us the tricks of the trade, then we passed those on to younger kids.

We got creative and made up our own games and rules, a lot of times to help compensate for imbalances of playing with different ages and abilities.

The ratio of time spent in low pressure, low stakes unstructured play to the high pressure, organized play was much higher than today.

I played a lot of driveway basketball, mainly because I got bored watching I Love Lucy reruns. I won no basketball scholarships, nor was I scouted by the NBA and I’m usually the last picked at just about any pickup game.

But, if I went to a country where they don’t grow up playing driveway basketball, the locals may be as amazed with my unconscious fade-away jumpers as I am with the soccer skills my friends from Europe and South America display.

Even when we played organized teams as kids, it wasn’t a major event. Every parent didn’t go to every game. Often, parents took turns carting the kids to the game. We often didn’t have large crowds to witness our losses and we didn’t get ear fulls on the ride home for the mistakes we made in the game. Nor do I remember getting snacks.

And, that was okay. Playing was more for us kids and less about pleasing parents and grandparents. They just wanted us to stay in school and out of trouble. We weren’t worried about college scholarships, going pro or being sports prodigies.

I think that’s the major thing that has changed. Now, sports is more about the parents. You know who I am talking about. Raise your hand if you or someone you know has mentioned to fellow adults that your kid plays a sport for a “competitive club”.

If you have a strong stance on the participation trophy debate, it may be a sign that you care about youth sports more than is healthy. Think about why you care more about that than you do your child’s video game or Lego building achievements.

Post Note: Zemanta suggested the related article below about i9 Sports. I love this quote from the article:

Youth sports have become adult sports played by kids. Adults have sucked the fun out of youth sports, and our goal is to put fun back to the center.

 

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Megan McArdle on Failure

I agree with most of what Megan McArdle has to say about failure in this EconTalk podcast.

Why is failure valuable?

…because that’s how we get information.

What about the typical success story?

…when you see the cover of a business magazine, it’s always this genius with his folded arms staring at you and the piece goes through all these brilliant ideas. But in fact when you talk to entrepreneurs, that isn’t how they experienced it. Usually how they experienced it was: We had this great idea and then it turned out that didn’t work, so we did something else. Or it turned out: It didn’t work and we went out of business.

Where do we learn to start avoiding failure?

…having failed is an important skill that kids need to learn. And the right time for them to learn it is when they are kids. And when the consequences for that are actually pretty low.

One of the book talks that I gave, a 10th grade girl came up to me afterwards and she said, You know, I would really love to try to fail, but I’m in an AP (Advanced Placement) program; only 5% of the people who are in the program are going to get a 4.0; and I just can’t afford to take a class that I wouldn’t get an A in.

And I just thought: America, you are doing it wrong. It’s not that kids shouldn’t work hard in school. That’s not what I’m saying. But the idea that at the age of 15 you have to be so self-protective that you can’t take any risks at all is insane. Because when is going to be a better time? When she is looking for an assisted living facility?

I might rephrase that first part, though. Having failed isn’t the important skill. Learning to deal with failure is and learning to overcome the fear of failure is another important skill.

It seems like soon after we get past the trials and errors of learning to walk, run, talk and ride bikes, we forget that trial and error is how we learn and we tighten our tolerance for error.

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Good links

A short, but insightful graduation speech.

A longer and insightful discussion of wealth and how different views of where it comes from can affect the words we use.

From the first:

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

From the second:

Europeans and Americans “claimed” a higher portion of global output only because they produced a higher portion of global output!  What these Europeans and Americans “claimed” simply would not have existed had they not produced it.

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Participation Trophy College

The previous post brings to mind discussions I’ve had on the topic in the past. In one such discussion, a person asked:

So, do you want to be the one who tells someone they can’t go to college?

It shows how much of a pedestal we’ve put college education upon. Like home ownership, it’s now a dream, that everyone is entitled to.

In home ownership, we forgot that renting was a good option for many. With college education, we forget that people without college education do fine, too.

Do I want to be the one who tells someone they can’t go to college? No. If I did, I’d apply to be a college admissions officer.

But telling people they can’t go to college or people deciding for themselves that it isn’t for them isn’t bad. How’s it any different from telling people they didn’t get a part in a movie or people deciding that pursuing their dream of acting isn’t panning out so they should try something else?

How’s it any different from kids in sports not making the team or deciding that a certain sport isn’t for them?

The question also shows how unimaginative we’ve become. It’s college or else. We can’t imagine alternatives. Yet, there are many.

 

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Signals vs Causes: Education

In this excellent EconTalk podcast, EconLogger Bryan Caplan discusses his upcoming book on education. He closes with this:

…the private return [of education] is high is really a very bad argument for pouring more money on.

Now, the other point, as we were saying, the return that you should be looking at in terms of this argument of not being able to borrow against your future earnings–what you are looking at is return for the marginal people who are just on the edge of going or not going. And as we’ve seen, the return for those people is actually… quite mediocre. And then finally if you adjust for ability and everything else, really I would say that once you appreciate signaling you realize that, so we have subsidized education way past the point of [?] returns. So by my calculations, actually, the social return to education is now quite negative.

And it would be a much better policy to drastically scale it back, so rather than encouraging more people to go, I think it’s better to discourage them from going or at least to encourage them less. So in fact–so, the biggest policy implication that’s going to come out of my book is we just have way too much education. I call this the white elephant in the room. There are way too many people going to school, maybe not from their own selfish point of view, but certainly from a social point of view to go and pour more money on this really is just throwing gasoline on the fire. And we need to do less of it.

I agree. Caplan’s argument is that we college education isn’t the cause of higher income, rather it’s just become the customary path that people with above average ambition and ability take and along the way we’ve mistaken it for the cause of that higher income.

It’s similar to the mistake ‘we’ made with housing. We thought owning a house made people responsible, so we made it easier to irresponsible people to own homes. We learned the hard way that owning a home was a marker of a responsible person, not a cause.

Now, we’re learning the same about college education as many kids graduate and find themselves deep in student loan debt and no higher income job to pay it off.

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Taxpayer-subsidized grins

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, links to a piece about the increase in spending on college athletics.

Anyone involved in youth sports in the last decade might have noticed the emergence of large, multi-level sports clubs, playing in multi-million dollar sports complexes all designed to host large quantities of organized competition for young players to become seasoned masters in their sport and attract the attention of college recruiters.

Having your kid get “signed’ to a college team — no matter how small the college, or how un-followed the sport — is the new crowning achievement of childhood that brings ear-to-ear grins to the faces of parents.

Take away taxpayer-provided college athletic subsidies and that crowning achievement of childhood and the industry that has sprouted to help parents achieve that ear-to-ear grin goes away.

Arnold Kling also comments on college athletic spending.