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What happened to losing?

Today's kids live in a world of scoreless games and trophies for everyone. When we cushion them from defeat at the early ages, are they less prepared to cope when real competition kicks in?

By Neil Swidey
August 22, 2010

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My middle daughter is a planner, the type of kid who begins elaborately mapping out her next birthday party on the morning after her last one. Her party plans tend to be creative, highly specific, and refreshingly low-cost, and my wife and I usually have no trouble going along with them. So it was that we found ourselves earlier this summer packing eight girls, including three of our own, into two cars for a day at the beach. The birthday girl, who was turning 8, had loaded up the agenda with activities, beginning with kite flying. After spending more time trying to untangle crossed lines than viewing any kites airborne, the girls on their own formed small teams and moved on to a treasure hunt, followed by a scavenger hunt. I’m still a bit foggy on the distinction between the two varieties of hunt, but that’s probably just because it’s been so long since I was 8. Then came the sand-castle-building contest. They rejiggered their teams and fanned out on the sparsely populated beach to begin converting sand into structure. That’s when we saw the first sign of trouble. As my wife and I walked around to admire the various creations in the making, at least one of the girls from each team made essentially the same demand of us: “We want you to be the judges and name the winner.”

Then, anticipating our likely dodge to minimize competition and award each team a different honor (Best Use of Shells on a Castle, etc.), they piped up with a more specific demand: “And we want you to name just one winner!”

I mumbled to my wife that I didn’t want to risk ending a nice day with a half-dozen girls being steamed at us during the long ride home because we didn’t select their mound of sand. Just then, in the shimmering sunlit distance, I spotted our solution. It came in the form of an older couple named Chuck and Agnes. I shuffled over to introduce myself, explained the situation, and asked if they’d serve as judges. I subcontracted out the job.

Chuck and Agnes could not have been more cooperative. He was gregarious, she was demure, but they were both instantly likable. They took time to examine each creation, which ranged from traditional castles to a mermaid-shaped structure, and traded comments about their favorite flourishes. Then they stepped aside for a judges’ conference that lasted several minutes.

When the girls asked what the prize would be, my wife punted and said “sprinkles on your ice cream cone,” knowing full well that we weren’t about to withhold jimmies from any party guest who wanted them. Hearing that, Chuck and Agnes announced their results in the most benign manner possible -- “fourth sprinkles,” “third sprinkles,” “second sprinkles,” and “first sprinkles.” I assume Chuck and Agnes have grandchildren, because they needed no prompts about the prevailing notion that adults should try to soften the blow of competition when dealing with kids.

Here was a case of a fun activity where the kids on their own decided it would be more exciting and meaningful if there was a single winning team. We met their request with seemingly ideal circumstances: neutral judges who provided a clear result but conveyed it in a supportive manner. And here’s how the girls responded: All of them but the first-sprinkles-scoring mermaids came away dejected. Sure, they had craved the clarity of a single winner, but they couldn’t handle it when the winner was somebody else.

For some reason, this experience more than any other made me take a fresh look at those prevailing notions about kids and winning that I had never really called into question. I have helped coach, either formally or informally, the soccer teams each of my girls played on when they were 5, and I happily conveyed to the boys and girls the spirit and policy of the league: It’s all about fun, and there will be no scorekeeping. Yet I couldn’t help but notice how most of the kids, on their own and when they thought the coaches weren’t listening, tended to keep a running score.

My kids’ well-organized soccer league is hardly an aberration. The Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association has had a no-scorekeeping guideline in place for kids younger than 9 for more than a decade, following the lead of US Youth Soccer. In what may be the best example of excess, a large soccer league for kids ages 5 to 18 in the Canadian city of Ottawa instituted a rule in May stipulating that any team winning a game by more than five goals would be penalized in the standings. The impulse to prevent blowouts is admirable, but a rule like that could end up teaching kids more about how to point-shave than anything else. These trends extend to many other sports -- the National Alliance for Youth Sports recommends no scorekeeping for the under-9 crowd -- and beyond sports. It’s gotten to the point where I’m no longer surprised to hear about cases like the principal of a north-of-Boston elementary school who banned even the informal dance-offs that had been popping up organically on the playground during recess.

This move to a score-free world for elementary school children is understandable and well intentioned. There are by now stacks of social-science studies attesting to the negative impact of runaway competition, not just on the psyche but more surprisingly on achievement. And faced with the all-too-common real-world examples of winning-at-all-cost ugliness -- homicidal hockey dads, cheating CEOs, steroid-jacked pro athletes -- we adults naturally want to insulate our kids from the insanity that awaits them.

But are we doing them any favors? Yes, kids have to learn that life is about a lot more than winning and losing. Yet, if we work so hard to cushion them from experiencing loss, when the sting finally finds them, it’s bound to feel more significant than it really is. Losing is not the same thing as failure. But if you’ve never experienced it, that’s exactly what it’s going to feel like.

* * *

The roots of the anti-competition movement can be found in the slant-roofed third-floor home office in Belmont that belongs to Alfie Kohn. Clustered on one wall are a dozen mounted front and back covers to Kohn’s books, with author photos showing him sporting every facial hair variety over the last quarter century. Resting on the thermostat nearby is a light-blue baseball cap with CAMUS printed above the brim. Sitting cross-legged on his couch, Kohn, who is now 52 and cleanshaven, explains the significance of the hat. “Other people wear baseball caps that say ‘Red Sox’ or some other team they like. I like to read Camus, so I had that hat made.”

The book that established Kohn as a social and educational critic was his first, titled No Contest: The Case Against Competition, published in 1986. In it, he synthesized, in a forceful and highly readable way, studies from across a broad range of disciplines to build his case that competition is inherently and irredeemably bad for adults and kids.

Among the researchers Kohn cited were brothers David and Roger Johnson, professors at the University of Minnesota who have shown that people working cooperatively, in the classroom or on the playing field, reach a higher level of achievement than people pitted against one another or working alone.

When I reach David Johnson, the 70-year-old asks me to imagine a common scenario from phys-ed class. The teacher announces that everyone has to run a mile. The speedy kids charge ahead and finish easily. Sweating profusely, the overweight kid struggles to finish, his physical challenge made worse by the taunting from other kids. He’s so humiliated that he soon shows up with a doctor’s note excusing him from phys-ed class indefinitely. To avoid crippling cases like that, the Johnsons advise teachers to break up their classes into heterogeneous groups of four or five and to make it clear to all of the kids that it’s their job to see that every member of their group completes the mile. “Instead of the other kids jeering the overweight kid,” David Johnson says, “they’re there cheering him on.”

Drawing on the work of the Johnsons and scores of other researchers, Kohn made his case that competition is not an inevitable part of human nature, that it causes anxiety and shame, that it creates disabling stress that inhibits performance, and that it fosters aggression and hostility.

Kohn’s idealistic call for the elimination of competition, such an embedded part of our classroom and playing-field cultures, was a radical one, and it prompted plenty of resistance. Yet it resonated, both in popular culture and in the academy. He made the talk-show rounds and received an award in 1987 from the American Psychological Association.

Although competition largely raged on, his sharp critique fertilized the landscape for future decisions in youth-sports circles. Presented with the uncomfortable indictment made by Kohn and others, youth-sports leaders took steps to try to mitigate the forces of excess competition, especially for the youngest children. Chief among these was the decision, in the early- to mid-’90s, to stop keeping score.

What’s interesting is that if anyone had checked with Kohn, his reaction may have come as a surprise. “I began my work on competition from the liberal position that there’s too much competition and it’s too intense, but if we could just manage it and scale it back, we’d be fine,” Kohn tells me. “But I came to the conclusion that it’s not the quantity, it’s the very nature of competition itself that is bad. So the liberals who say, ‘Go ahead and play tennis, but don’t try to make the other person lose’ -- that’s garbage. That’s self-delusional. If you’re not trying to make the other person lose, it’s not tennis.”

* * *

Let me save you some time: If you’ve come seeking affirmation for the facile argument about the so-called “wussification of American kids today,” you’ll probably want to stop reading now.

The issue is hardly black and white. It’s true that our kids, in some ways, are more coddled and have it much easier than previous generations. But it’s also true that, in other ways, we adults have saddled our kids with way more pressure to compete than we ever faced, imposing on them at young ages daunting expectations for their academic and athletic “careers.”

Until relatively recently, children tended to get the bulk of their athletic exposure in sandlot games where kids handled the organizing, team selection, rules enforcement, and conflict resolution. Now, from a very young age, kids inhabit and compete in an adult-organized world.

I began playing organized basketball in the fourth grade. But the basketball experiences that shaped me much more were the pickup games played on the courts in the center of town. The action there was intense, yet there was never an adult in sight. We kids ran the show. If one team dominated too much, we just naturally switched up teams. We called our own fouls. And, yes, we certainly kept score, but no one had time to obsess over victories and losses. There was always another game just about to begin. (For many kids today, the only regular exposure to this type of environment is video games, and kids don’t seem scarred from losing at Mario Kart on the Wii.)

In contrast, my few childhood memories revolving around an overemphasis on winning have adults at their core. There was my brothers’ assistant coach in youth-league baseball who once screamed at my oldest brother that if he didn’t start playing better, he’d bench him in favor of “your little brother.” That coach, incidentally, also led the choir in church every Sunday. I can only imagine his preferred techniques for inspiring the soloists to reach their God-given potential. By the time I joined that team, there was a new coaching slate and my skipper was a compact, soft-spoken first-generation American who struck me as thoroughly decent. Meanwhile, one of the opposing coaches was a muffin-topped loudmouth who used to stand at the edge of the backstop and literally taunt the kids coming up to bat from the other team. One game near the end of the season, as the bloated bloviator gassed on, my easygoing coach snapped, throwing down his clipboard, charging at the guy, and shoving him to the ground. Instantly, the loudmouth was drained of all his swagger as he yelled out in a panic, “Somebody call the cops!” Quite a sight for us third- and fourth-graders to take in.

No disrespect to the legions of dedicated adults who do right by kids as coaches and mentors, but most of the negative forces in youth activities can be traced to grown-ups.

So there’s plenty of justification for reasonable adults to want to ratchet down the competition levels in kids’ sports. And some of the reforms gaining traction are sound, in light of both research and reality. Take, for instance, the move to minimize cuts. Cutting kids from teams when they’re still in elementary school -- or even middle school -- simply makes no sense. Truth is, the predictive powers of even experienced coaches to survey a bunch of 10-year-olds and spot the future Division I college stars are about as reliable as a 90-day weather forecast. Athletic prowess at 10 or 11 is largely a function of physical maturity. Getting cut at an early age is no good for the kids who don’t make the roster, yet might otherwise have blossomed. But it’s also no good for the young anointed superstars who get tracked into early specialization of one sport, increasing their chance of burnout. By age 13, some 70 percent of kids have dropped out of youth sports. And imagine how crushing it is for the third-grader dubbed the next Mia Hamm who, after other kids catch up in physical maturity, isn’t even able to make her high school varsity team.

The question of whether all kids who participate in an activity should get a trophy or whether the hardware should go only to those few who truly earn it is a third-rail controversy that could easily devour all of my available space here. Let me try to weigh in as briefly as possible. First off, I treasured the “Coach’s Award” I received from my fifth-grade basketball coach, both because I earned it through grit, despite my limited abilities, and because I was the only one on the team, besides the top-scoring MVP, who took home a trophy that year. So I came to this debate deeply skeptical of the everyone-gets-a-trophy trend. That gut feeling was only strengthened when I observed a Fourth of July kids’ race this year where the volunteer organizers ran out of “honorable mention” ribbons and were besieged by throngs of kids who simply could not comprehend how they could be involved in even the least consequential athletic event and not walk away with some kind of tangible reward. (An elderly female volunteer tried apologizing to the kids, sweetly and repeatedly -- “Sorry, I only have first-, second-, and third-place ribbons left” -- until her elderly male counterpart, wearing a hearing aid in each ear, finally had enough and barked, “There’s no more! No more!”)

However, as I reviewed research on “intrinsic versus extrinsic” motivation, I came to see the validity in the argument that singling out just one or two players for a trophy is really not great for the many who are left out -- or even for the few who are handed the hardware. Trophies tend to stress the wrong priorities -- outward, or extrinsic, rewards -- rather than the more important dimensions, like love of the game and inner drive to improve. “Those who have extrinsic motivation end up quitting a lot sooner than those who have intrinsic motivation,” says Mike Singleton, executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association. We might be better off dropping trophies altogether or following the lead of a Missouri school district where teams award medallions to those opponents whose sportsmanship brought out the best in them.

But not keeping score is different.

* * *

For starters, misleading kids seldom works. What good comes of outlawing scorekeeping when kids are able and determined to keep score on their own? Who are we fooling? “In baseball, for example, a child who goes 0 for 4 and does not make solid contact knows that she or he did not hit well in comparison to other children who hit the ball hard and got hits,” says Peter Hager, a New York academic and coauthor of a paper in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport titled “De-emphasizing Competition in Organized Youth Sport: Misdirected Reforms and Misled Children.” Not keeping score, he says, “will do little to help the self-confidence and self-esteem of such a child.”

Moreover, when kids advance to the age that scoring does kick in, those who haven’t had exposure to it at earlier ages will be less equipped to view it appropriately. If you go from T-ball where there are no strikeouts and no scores to Little League baseball in third grade where there’s real pitching and you sit down after three missed swings, the transition can be painfully abrupt. Worse, because kids are told at a young age that keeping score is something only big kids get to do, by the time they are allowed to do it, they will likely invest it with exaggerated importance.

David Light Shields, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the coauthor of True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society and founder of TrueCompetition.org. He says the real value of sports is the process of play, but having outcomes of winning and losing accentuates the level of excitement and challenge. “Without keeping score, what does the process mean?” he says. “Part of learning about competition is learning what the score means.”

In his mind, artificially delaying scorekeeping will make kids view it as something akin to cursive writing, the grown-up thing to do once you’re freed from the shackles of writing in block letters. That will make it harder for kids to keep things in perspective. Again, the most important message we need to get across to kids is that losing is not failure. It’s simply a reference point to a particular time and a particular set of circumstances. “If we go through life afraid to lose,” Shields says, “that’s a major stimulus to all sorts of problems.”

There is a troubling unintended message embedded in a no-scorekeeping policy. “You’re telling them that keeping score is something negative or shameful or wrong,” says David Johnson, the longtime proponent of cooperative learning. “It’s not the keeping score that’s wrong. It’s what you see as the implications of the score.”

Johnson says he’d love it if the competition-free world that Alfie Kohn calls for were feasible. “We’d all be better off.” But if you look at the many forms of competition across the long sweep of time -- from playing card games to participating in sports to watching sports -- there is something about competition that is innately appealing, he says. “You just can’t take it all away.” (Johnson and Shields were both competitive athletes in their school days, while Kohn says he did “only what I had to” when it came to playing sports in gym class.)

In his lectures, Kohn has long encouraged parents to create cooperative -- noncompetitive -- game groups in their neighborhoods, so their kids can play activities like “bump and scoot volleyball,” working together to try to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible. But as the father of a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Kohn regretfully concedes that even he never started a cooperative game group in his own Belmont neighborhood. And though his children have independently chosen not to play youth sports, his son has shown an interest in chess -- “He’s pretty vicious,” Kohn says -- which, of course, is an activity built on zero-sum, warlike themes of competition. (Fortunately, Kohn says, his son has recently moved on from chess to the guitar.)

Johnson says that’s why it makes more sense to focus on teaching kids about healthy competition. “Where Alfie tends to say competition should be eliminated, we say competition should be used only under certain conditions.” Those conditions include: (1) that participation is voluntary; (2) the teams are set up so that everyone has a reasonable chance of winning; (3) the importance of winning is relatively minor, so that 10 minutes after the game, you barely remember who won and who lost; (4) the rules are clear and fair; and (5) relative progress can be monitored. Interestingly, all those conditions were present in those intense pickup basketball games I used to play in when I was a kid.

“There is a place for competition in life,” Johnson says, “and young children should learn to use competition appropriately.” Part of that involves acquiring coping skills. “To learn how to cope with adversity, you need some adversity.”

We need to get to a point where a loss is seen for the insignificant thing it is. But we won’t get there by protecting kids from any exposure to it.

Shields says it’s worth remembering that, at its root, the word competition actually means “to seek or strive with.” True competition, as he sees it, describes striving with your opponent, fighting hard to draw the best out of each other, not simply hoping for a win regardless of circumstances. That’s how Chris Evert, when asked to name the favorite match of her career, could select an excruciating Wimbledon loss to Martina Navratilova. The two archrivals had pushed each other to the max, inspiring peak performances, and that was enough for Evert.

That, says Shields, is true competition, as opposed to the nasty, hostile form of competition, which he calls “decompetition,” the variety most likely behind the negative outcomes identified in the research. “Great accomplishment requires great effort, and a strong desire to win can be a powerful engine for effort,” he has written. “The problem isn’t with the quantity of the desire to win. The issue is why the person wants to win.”

If your opponent trips and falls during the race and you’re happy to get the win that way, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Kids need to learn this.

* * *

About a week after my daughter’s sand-castle competition, I unexpectedly found myself watching my mother teach croquet to my daughters and nieces. They’d never played it before, and my mom, who is a great lover of games, had no trouble explaining all the rules, despite not having played croquet herself in decades. More important was the effortless way she transmitted the enjoyment of the game. I noticed that she never pandered to the girls, never offered them gimmies or do-overs or let them win to make themselves feel better, as I have sometimes done. She competed with determination and drive, but her hope that all of her granddaughters also would do their best was as obvious as her cheering was abundant.

When the girls reacted with frustration to a bad shot, my mom would gently but firmly refocus them, either with a bit of advice or a nudge of encouragement. It struck me that she was quietly modeling the values of true competition, values she had learned during her childhood days playing every conceivable game in fields all over Dorchester. We can’t go back to those days, of course, but we can try to learn from them.

When the game ended, it was clear who had won, and the girls who hadn’t appeared poised to pout. But my mom quickly had them lining up their balls and mallets once again, and just like that, they were focused on enjoying the next game. After a couple of games, no one seemed keyed in on who had won or lost.

I hope my mom’s nearby for the next sand-castle contest.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

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