My 10-year-old relays his hockey statistics to his father on the phone while I race to make dinner after yet another weeknight practice. His team has won eight games, lost seven, and just tied for the fifth time. The tie is well celebrated in youth sports as the perfect antidote to being hypercompetitive. It preserves self-esteem and makes all feel equal.
But not in my kid’s book.
“I wish we had overtime,” he tells his father, wistfully. “We could have won in overtime.” He believes games are supposed to be won, despite hearing time and again from coaches that what matters is how you play the game. Team sports were never my thing, but since my son started pretending wooden spoons were baseball bats when he was 3, I’ve accepted that sports are critical to who he is: a highly competitive young athlete.
For years I’ve wavered between hoping that my son’s competitiveness might be his superpower and worrying that it might be a fatal flaw. Will he grow up to be one of those guys who broods when he loses and gloats when he wins? Not long after overhearing him grumble about the indignity of ties, I set out to find out if a competitive nature augers well for his future. When I dug into the research and sought expert opinions about competitiveness in and out of youth sports, what I learned about him — and myself — surprised me.
Even trying to pin down what it really means to be competitive is a challenge. The word came into usage in the early 19th century. Oxford cites “having or displaying a strong desire to be more successful than others.” Put that way, competitive sounds like someone who tries to clamber over others to get to the top. Sounds vaguely unlikeable, reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon’s detestable character in the movie Election. But Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, goes back to the Latin for his definition. “Competere means to strive together,” Thompson says. “Life is competitive. Kids need to learn how to compete, and sports is a great place to do that.” But, he adds, “there is healthy competition and there is unhealthy competition. When at all costs, competition is a sickness.”
Researchers have been studying this dual nature of competiveness for decades. Social scientists have even developed scales to measure the trait, determine what constitutes hypercompetitiveness (an indiscriminate need to win at any cost), and see how it coincides with related factors like emotionality, impatience, and aggression. When I answered the questions on psychology professor John Houston’s Competitiveness Index, unsurprisingly, my son qualified as “very competitive.” And so did I. Given that competition is the engine behind our whole economy (energy, initiative, drive!) I could pat myself on the back.
But it’s also the flame behind some darker impulses. Author Alfie Kohn questioned why Americans have to defeat others in order to feel successful in his 1986 book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, and for that, he found himself branded a loser and a wimp in some quarters. It might not be healthy physically either: medical research has shown that type A people — characterized as highly competitive — are at higher risk for heart attacks.
sports — Sports — SPORTS!
That said, if my son were ferociously competitive in the classroom, I wouldn’t worry so much. He can’t settle for a tie, but he’s not fazed by being in the third-tier math class. Maybe my son is simply representative of a systemic problem. In Amanda Ripley’s 2013 book The Smartest Kids in the World — and How They Got That Way, which compares American academic culture to that in other countries, including South Korea, she describes how the glorification of youth sports has led to an undercutting of academic drive in the U.S. Sports are fine in isolation, Ripley explains, but combined with less rigorous academic curriculums, increasing poverty levels, and decreasing standards in teacher training? “The primacy of sports sends a message that what matters — what really leads to greatness — has little to do with what happens in the classroom,” Ripley writes.
When and how did sports glorification come about? Youth sports have been around a long time, but they simmered for decades before reaching today’s boil. Pop Warner football started in 1929, organized youth hockey in 1937, and Little League in 1939. Hilary Levey Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, links the self-esteem movement of the 1960s to the explosion in youth sports leagues. With less emphasis on competition inside schools — teachers weren’t supposed to call out academic losers or winners — an increasing number of parents registered their kids in pay-for-play sports leagues to guarantee their offspring the chance to compete.
Now, youth sports are a full-blown societal obsession. Studies suggest at minimum 21 million American children between the ages of 6 and 17 play organized sports; higher estimates put it closer to 41 million. Sports researcher Don Sabo’s 2013 study for the Women’s Sports Foundation found that 70 percent of boys in third to fifth grade say sports are a big part of who they are, and in suburban communities 51 percent of boys play three or more competitive sports a year. Only 35 percent of girls claim sports are central to their identity, but experts say the competitive pressure on girls is ramping up and comes with additional problems, like negotiating traditional standards of femininity while being a super jock.
We’re winning, we’re winning!
While public schools have veered away from overt competition, the petri dish of youth sports has stepped in to provide a massive experiment in how overcharged adult expectations can teach kids exactly the wrong lesson. Jim Thompson’s Positive Coaching Alliance was inspired by what he witnessed on the sidelines of his then 7-year-old son’s baseball games in Palo Alto, CA: pushy parents, coaches way too intent on winning, and children having a miserable time as a result of both. He’s seen firsthand that competition doesn’t always entail what the Latin definition suggests. Sometimes striving together can look like war.
“There are social dynamics going on at every sporting event,” he says. “You’ve got kids that are out on display, parents that might have unfulfilled sports dreams of their own, coaches that might not get much recognition in their own jobs.”
At this point in the interview, I break in to describe some appalling coach behavior I recently witnessed at a hockey tournament. “Two minutes to go, we’re ahead, and the opposing team’s coach gets up on the bench and starts yelling at the ref,” I tell him. As I’m going into how the players followed suit with stick banging, rude hand gestures, and toddler-like behavior to the point where I was tempted to make a quiet referral to PCA, Thompson stops me. “You said ‘we,’” he says quietly. He’s right, I did. “This is one of the things we see,” he says. “Parents identify so much with the team that they use a term like ‘we.’” Why, Thompson wonders, don’t I refer to the team as “my son’s team”? After all, I’m not out there on the ice with him. This stops me dead in my tracks.
It’s a common practice among team parents to become overly involved, he says. The parents that focus on the “we” of it all tend to be the same parents that greet their child in the locker room with an analysis of everything that went wrong in a game instead of focusing on the more important messages, like “I’m proud of you” or “I liked how you passed to your teammate.” Positive Coaching Alliance is about teaching coaches, children, and their parents to honor the game, to get the best out of their own characters — and not just their capable little bodies. All too often, these values are shunted aside. “A parade of teachable moments are often missed because of the win-at-all-cost mentality,” Thompson says.
Talking to Mark Hyman, author of Until It Hurts, America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, reinforces this message. Fourteen or so years ago, Hyman succumbed to the lure of increasingly competitive youth baseball. After allowing his son to participate in everything from baseball camps in Florida to fall ball, a grueling schedule running from February through November year after year, his son accumulated a series of injuries along with his trophies. By the time his son was 18, he needed the so-called Tommy John surgery to repair an elbow ligament severely damaged by throwing. The irony is that Hyman, a journalist like me, was well aware of this particular risk to young athletes; he’d even written a magazine article about it. “I should have been smarter about realizing that less is more and that it’s not a good idea to accept every invitation,” Hyman says. “I cared too much.”
Hyman asked me question after question, the way a therapist does when they are first getting to know you. “How do you define successful?” “Is your son having fun?” “What are your objectives for your son in sports?” My answers are that I want him to be active, learn how to work as part of a team, and have fun. And yes, he is definitely having fun. No, I wasn’t gunning for a college scholarship. But would I like it if he made a high school team? Yes. Yes, I would.
Like mother, like son
I started this whole research process thinking competitiveness was a problem for my son. But is it my problem, too? One of my son’s recent hockey games (I just stopped myself from writing “our recent hockey game”) was a fierce back-and-forth between two local teams: friends versus friends. My son’s team was down, then roared back thanks to a goal by my son; but in the end, the teams tied.
“I love ties,” I overhear one mother telling another. “They’re the best!” says the second mother as she folds up the blanket they’ve been sharing in the chilly rink. I say nothing, but I feel guilty because given the choice, I will always choose winning.
In 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent: Making Athletics a Positive Experience for Your Child, Joel Fish, the director of the Center for Sport Psychology, recommends that parents inventory their own competitive nature. I may have dreaded dodge ball in gym class, but as I read Fish I realize that when it comes to big things, such as career (and small things, like I make the best brownies), I am just as competitive as my child. “Believing that being competitive is somehow bad or incorrect is an impediment for seeing yourself as you really are,” Fish writes, gently reminding the reader that how you handle both losses and wins is how your child learns to do the same.
In Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take an in-depth look at an 1897 study conducted on children my son’s age, using a footrace as the test case. The research showed that while competition drove half the kids to run faster, a quarter remained unaffected, and the last quarter actually ran slower when they were pitted against their peers. Turns out, competition isn’t a good thing for all children.
This fits with author Hilary Levey Friedman’s view that extrinsic goals (outside measures of success) can decrease intrinsic or natural motivation. Within the top dog theory, a competitive child who meets with enough failure may lose that motivation to compete at all. I wonder if this is what happened with my son in math. In second grade, he was driven by competition with one of his friends; they vied to be at the top of the class, and he did not “win.” Now in fifth grade, his old friend has been identified as gifted and sent to a special class. Meanwhile, my son seems content in a third-tier math class. Apparently, that’s a loss he can live with. But as a parent, can I?
Score “1” for school
In my fantasies, I’m channeling my son’s competitive spirit into academics. I picture it like pulling a switch in the railroad yard to send his competitive train hurtling onto a different track headed for the land of differential equations and AP Spanish. But the more experts I talk to, the more I realize I need a new approach to managing his competitiveness. I could help by challenging him to more chess matches, where we’re both equally competitive, thereby cross-training my boy’s competitive spirit. At the same time, I could get him talking about his feelings after a game. I could try to get him to think more deeply about what makes him feel resilient or brave so that he can draw on that knowledge in at other times in his life.
As for the lack of Reese-Witherspoon-in-Election-style academic ambition, Hyman predicts that my son’s passion for sports will eventually translate into other areas. But there’s nothing wrong, he says, in steering him toward academics. He suggests imposing on my son the same academic standards that many high school and college programs do. In other words, even if it’s only Little League, if he wants to play sports, he must work just as hard in school as he does on the field.
When I look hard at my parenting, I realize I’ve been more frantic about getting him to hockey practice at the end of a long day than I am about checking his homework. Why is that? It’s because I sit in the rink, but I don’t sit in the classroom. I’m used to measuring him against his peers in an athletic venue, but not academically. The result is I’m not being strict enough about what comes first. In the darkest part of winter, I catch my son in a lie about homework he didn’t do. His teacher and I conspire to watch over him like a hawk. This entails me walking him into his classroom every morning. He hates this. I don’t like it much either, but I’m determined to show I care as much about this — more in fact — than I do about the hockey tournaments and baseball doubleheaders.
A month later, I sit down for a parent-teacher conference, steeling myself for the usual disappointment.
Instead, the news is good. My boy is trying harder, handing assignments in, snapping to it when the teacher reminds him that his mother could start walking him into class again. Somehow, my new focus on showing what I care about has worked a minor miracle on my son’s academic life. His teacher tells me about a word game they play at the end of every school day, involving a ball being tossed between the children and teacher. “He is competitive,” he says. “He loves that game.”
“That’s because there is a ball!” I joke. But inside I’m calling this a point for my team.