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Too Much Emphasis on Winning
By: Doug Schauer

I was raised in a family of seven children, all of whom participated in organized sports and competitive activities. We were fortunate that both of our parents were athletic, so we were gifted with physical skills that made learning the basics of most sports relatively easy. I don’t think that anyone in my family worried about the rigors of gym class or team sports. We took it for granted that we’d succeed in spite of normal limitations due to size, strength or speed. Doing the best that you could was all that was expected of us. In spite of all the team and individual sports that we practiced, my parents never put too much emphasis on winning. Being on the team and maintaining a positive attitude was reward enough. 

My coaches in Little League baseball and Pee Wee football also fostered this environment. Their job was to teach us basic skills and allow as many kids as possible to play during games. In fact, some leagues enforced an equal playing time rule so that every kid who practiced was guaranteed game time. We wanted to win, but we were also taught to respect the qualities of fair play, gamesmanship and integrity. Teamwork was emphasized over winning at all costs. As I progressed through high school and collegiate athletics, the emphasis on winning took on more meaning when I understood that the income generated by ticket sales was a principal factor in maintaining many sports programs. At this age, I understood the profit factor attached to a winning team. I also knew that playing on the varsity squad was the result of competing for a limited number of positions. Not every kid was capable of competing at the higher levels. We were there because we wanted to compete against the best athletes and test our skills.

It wasn’t until I became a parent and started coaching youth sports that I began to see the ugly side of winning at all costs. It wasn’t the kids who fostered this attitude; it was the parents and some coaches who took all of the fun out of playing, practicing and competing. In my second year of coaching soccer, I decided to start the first practice with a parent’s meeting. I explained my philosophy of managing practices, teaching basic skills, teamwork and equal playing time. If a parent objected, I offered them an opportunity to take their child off my team and re-assign them to another coach. My objective was to educate the parents, not the kids, that winning was not the primary objective. When you’re coaching kids 6-12 years of age, they need to learn as much about teamwork, sportsmanship and integrity as they do basic athletic skills. Most of the kids who participate in youth sports will not be playing at the high school level. So they need a positive and encouraging experience that will help them mature into responsible adults. Many of the coaching clinics that I attended emphasized these aspects of the sport and monitored the coaches to make sure they were employed.

Once my sons advanced to traveling teams, all-stars and high school sports, I knew that it was time to become a spectator and let the real coaches take over. As soon as the boys moved beyond recreational teams, I also lost my desire to coach. 

Parents used to call me at home and berate me for letting the “lousy kids” play, which would jeopardize our chances of winning. Some parents let me know all the mistakes that I had made during the course of a game. I always tried to accept these criticisms with a good attitude and patience. Neither of which I do very well. When a parent became too overbearing, I always invited them to help me coach and teach the kids how to play. No one ever took me up on this offer.

I have to admit that once my sons began playing on traveling teams, and participating in statewide and regional tournaments, I also had occasion to become “that obnoxious parent.” My competitive spirit didn’t wane because I was no longer coaching. Sure, I was reliving some of my athletic accomplishments, and failures, through my sons’ exploits. I think that 95% of the fathers and mothers who invest time, money, travel and long weekends to support their kid’s athletic endeavors want to see them win. But winning at all costs has taken on an ugly persona in the past decade. Every year TV and newspapers carry stories about parents who have attacked coaches and each other at youth sporting events. This behavior needs to stop.

Kids today are exposed to professional sports “24/7” with cable TV and the explosion of sports-related media. Players have a huge impact on what athletic shoes kids wear, team jerseys, ball caps and clothing styles. And, high school sports are facing a serious health risk due to the use of anabolic steroids. Kids want to be bigger, faster and stronger.  They’re willing to take risks with life-threatening implications in order to compete at any cost. Even when we recognize these risks, we’re still caught up in the frenzy to be No. 1. 

It makes me laugh when the TV cameras pan the stadium at a college sporting event and the fans are always yelling “we’re No. 1,” and wagging their Styrofoam #1 fingers when the team’s record is below .500. Who really cares? Probably the coaches trying to hold onto their jobs and the college administrators who are trying to balance a $5-million athletic budget.  Many fans spend weekends rooting for their college and professional teams and come to work miserable on Monday when they lose. I guess if you’re a season ticket-holder who spends $1500-3000 on seats, then you’re allowed to agonize over a team’s losses. It still makes no sense to me when you consider what’s really important in your life.        

We need to set a better example for our children. Kids and parents that participate in youth athletic programs should be required to sign a statement acknowledging that the principles of fair play, teamwork, integrity and sportsmanship are the most important elements for joining a team. Any kid who steps onto the playing field or court is in my estimation a winner. Let’s recognize them for their efforts not just the results.

As pastors, encourage your youth leaders, and particularly your recreation ministers, to teach our kids how to enjoy sports and not stress only the winning aspect.

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