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. I hear a lot of parents humble-brag about their kids playing “competitive” or “travel” sports, as if that means something. It does mean something. It means you are paying a lot more than the previous generation to have your child be mediocre at sports.
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.
Update: Mike M requested that I add the link to a previous discussion about what college athletes said their parents said to them. Here it is: Signals v causes in youth sports.
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.