Should kids' sports be non-competitive?

Should kids' sports be non-competitive?

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Should kids' sports be non-competitive?

If anyone should be in favour of eliminating scores and standings in youth sports, it's me. Because I'm the father of an 11-year-old hockey goalie.

Two years ago, my son Adam decided to be a goalie. I've aged 10 years since then. You will find me behind the net, hair visibly greying, peering through the glass with one hand clutching a coffee and the other jammed in my pocket, fingers crossed, as Adam flips around in the net while kids try to score on him.

In a playoff game this past spring, he let in a couple of shots that even I, his doting dad, thought should have been easy saves. After the final buzzer, signalling the team's elimination from the playoffs, Adam threw himself facedown in the crease, wailing and moaning with self-loathing. And as Adam's teammates filed off the ice, I could see the tears behind their wire face cages — and I knew it would be a while before they could look Adam in the eye. (Quick fixes: 10 ways to boost your child's self-esteem.)

Should winners and losers be eliminated?
Did I feel Adam's pain and theirs? Yes, like a poke check to the heart. If I could take away his and his teammates' pain, by decreeing that there were no winners and losers, by renaming the playoffs a "hockey festival" and suggesting that the point of playing was wellness and skill development, would I? No.

But that's what is happening in the world of Canadian youth sports these days. It has already happened in soccer; some jurisdictions have adopted the no-score, no-standings festival model as part of a Canadian Soccer Association initiative called Wellness to World Cup Long-Term Player Development. (Can we pause on that a sec? It's as if they had a meeting to come up with a title and someone said, "It should emphasize wellness," and another person said, "It should stress long-term player development," and someone else said, "It should focus on our World Cup chances." Then finally the team facilitator said, "There are no winners or losers here; let's just squish all of your ideas into one long title!")

Proponents of the model say that when kids are free from worrying about scores and standings, they'll play for the fun of it, improve their skills and spend more time with the ball or puck. They say kids need to get their 10,000 hours (the amount of time, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes to get good at anything) if they can hope to grow up to compete on the world stage.

There's a lot of truth to that. I know that when my middle child, J.J., plays shinny, he'll sometimes practise for six or seven hours at a stretch and come back soaked, red-cheeked, starving, dehydrated — and having probably improved his skills more than he would in a whole season of organized play. And most pundits agree that Wayne Gretzky became The Great One not from playing organized hockey so much as from running drills with his dad in the family's iced-over backyard.

Noncompetition has its advantages as well
Believe me, part of me embraces noncompetition — partly just because of the coaches. I have three boys, none of whom has ever (to be brutally honest) shown exceptional aptitude in any sport (except ping-pong and ultimate — unfortunately, the only two sports their father likes and will play with them).

From their earliest ages, it's been a never-ending source of frustration for me how their obsessed- with-winning coaches benched or sidelined my boys and only played the star athletes. It makes me want to grab the coach's little whistle, pull his face close to mine and say: "At age six, who cares who wins?" And, "How are my boys supposed to get good by playing three minutes per game?"

But is not keeping score really the answer? I think kids need both competitive and unstructured sports. To me, the saddest part of the debate is the admission that kids do not have nearly as much unstructured play as they used to.

Unstructured play: The answer to debate over competitive sports?
Maybe it's our failure as parents. Maybe we're not being Walter Gretzky–like enough and should begetting out and playing with our kids more. Maybe it's the nexus of technology and our desire to protect our kids that's responsible for the sad fact that our alleyways, which once rang with shouts of "pass!" and "shoot!" and "car!" are silent, as kids stay indoors, glued to Minecraft and Call of Duty. (Though I'm happy to report the alley behind my house hosts lots of ball hockey games.)

But I think it's misguided to try to protect them from the pain of winning and losing. I'm a gen-Xer, and times were tough when we entered the workforce, but I like to think many of us adapted and coped with resilience. But — I know this is purely anecdotal, and I would like to apologize in advance to an entire generation I am about to besmirch, malign and impugn — everyone I know who is in a position to work with millennials (those who came of age more or less around the turn of this century) says the same thing: Along with feeling hugely entitled, they can't take criticism. In fact, they expect only to be praised — and are horribly shocked when things go the other way. IMHO, it's because they were raised by baby boomers, a generation that placed children's self-esteem above all else. (You can also find other ways to raise a confident child.)

Blows to self-esteem not always bad
Playing competitive sports can be a terrible blow to your self-esteem. But maybe that is what's so good about them. That pain Adam feels when he lets in a goal and thinks he has let down his team? That's the pain of living, of fighting the battle of life and of having things not always go your way. There's really no avoiding it, and I wouldn't want him to. I'd pay good money for him to experience this pain — and, in fact, I do. I'm glad he chose to be a goalie, precisely because there is so much pressure. It will stand him in good stead later in life. Whatever happens to him — if he screws up a big project, say, or even loses his job — he may weep and moan and gnash his teeth, he may even bang his head against the wall like he once did on the ice, but then he will stand up, shake it off and get back up on his skates (oops, sorry, I mean feet).

To me, learning to lose and get back out there is the most important lesson we learn from competitive sports. That, and the handshake afterward. It says: We both fought hard. We threw everything we had at you, trying to defeat you, but now that it's over and the results are in, well, it wasn't anything personal. Let's get some pizza.

And that was my biggest disappointment with Adam's performance that day, that he was so upset he didn't shake the other team's hands. But he'll eventually learn that too: how to be a good sport, win or lose.

Yes, you can help your kid become a team player. But remember you're their biggest role model, so be sure you've got good sideline behaviour yourself.

This story first appeared as "Play at your own risk!" in our July 2013 issue.

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Should kids' sports be non-competitive?