Thursday, May 01, 2008

When Winning is Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

Last Sunday, I took my three-year-old son to a Red Sox game. Given his fascination with Red Sox hats and T-shirts as well as baseball players in
general, I was certain this was going to be a big occasion for him. As we walked
up the ramp and caught a glimpse of the perfectly manicured green field at
Fenway Park, we heard, "Batting third, designated hitter, David Ortiz" followed
by the roar of the crowd. I thought to myself, "Wow, he will remember this day
for the rest of his life."

But he's three. I knew that he would be unable to follow the game much less see
it from our seats in right field. I thought he might be fascinated by the
players or perhaps seeing a real live baseball. But he could care less. The only
thing that captivated him besides the friendly older kids sitting next to us and
the music was the peanuts and cracker jacks I bought for him. He was perfectly
happy snacking but unimpressed by all facets of the game. And he had no idea
about the score.

Some argue that when children reach age four or five, they start to become
competitive. Many parents will report this as well about their children. They
say that their kids cry when they lose and therefore must really care about
winning and losing. Researchers indicate that children become aware of
competitive tasks by age four and five, but do children really understand
winning and losing? Are tears after losing really about the game or about those
who are watching them play? Or maybe these children are simply frustrated in
their drive to learn a new skill.

Recently, I was speaking to a coach who was a former college athlete. He told me
a story of how both he and his best friend believed that their T-ball teams were
undefeated, even though they played on different teams in the same league. But
in their eyes, they actually were undefeated. They got to hit the ball and run
to first base. They celebrated their small successes as they developed a comfort
with the game. This was winning.

So when does a child truly understand what competition is all about? Some sport
specialists argue that children do not fully understand the meaning of winning
and losing until they reach adolescence when they are capable of abstract
thought. If this is true, think of how many children are unsuited for the
intensely competitive environments in which they play.

In the past few years, new movements have developed across the country where no
score is kept, where cheering is not allowed. But the problem is not the score,
nor is it about cheering or competition. Anyone working with children in sports
recognizes that while most kids may keep score, the outcome of the game is gone
from their minds shortly after the game is over. After the last out, their
concerns lie in plans with their friends and a trip to their favorite ice cream
joint. Not so with the adults. The outcome of the game often plays into our
ambitions and fears about our kids' development as athletes and happy people. We
want to ensure that they feel good about themselves and win in the process. It
is hard for many of us to focus on skill development and joy of the game when
our kids lose. Each game is a step toward making that next team, solidifying our
kids' self-esteem while perhaps increasing the likelihood that sports will be a
vehicle for college acceptance down the road.

The problem lies with us and our culture. We are influenced by the belief that
we must start early and often with our children in sports - we must push and
challenge them. And in our efforts to provide what is best for our children, we
engage them prematurely in overly competitive and demanding tasks that fail to
mesh with their developmental readiness to play and compete. I was reminded of
this very fact when taking my son to the game. Without question, he absolutely
enjoyed himself. Yet, winning wasn't about how well the Red Sox played or
whether he saw Jason Varitek. Winning was about peanuts and cracker jacks and
time alone with his father.

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