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By: Mike Nowell

Ask someone to state the values of organized sports and you will likely get a list containing some of the following:

  • Learning a discipline
  • Learning the healthy habit of regular physical activity
  • Learning to engage in hard work
  • Learning to get along with others
  • Learning teamwork and to embrace shared goals
  • Learning to set and work towards realistic goals
  • Learning the value of practice and preparation
  • Learning self-discipline
  • Learning good sportsmanship (Learning to play fairly and by the rules)
  • Learning to overcome adversity
  • Learning to handle the emotions associated with success and failure
  • Having fun
  • Forming friendships

Like many adults, I am an individual who strongly believes in the ability of competitive play to foster these positive attributes in a child. Yet what is the question we reflexively ask first of a child who has related that they recently participated in a competitive game?

“Did you win?”

Why is this the first question when far more meaningful questions abound?

Instead of referencing and supporting the values that we espouse, we default to a cultural norm that sends an indelible message as to what we are most interested in about the child’s experience and, by doing so, inform the child that winning is the most important reason for participating in play.

Having worked with young children from diverse families for over three decades, I can cite direct evidence that the elation and frustration associated with the winning and losing of games is a learned response rather than an innate one. Not all children demonstrate these emotional responses.

If children collapse into tears when their team posts fewer points, if they demonize their opponents as unfeeling brutes who have skirted the rules, if they engage in overblown celebrations or taunting behaviors when their team has come out on top, it is because they have been taught by repeated example that these are the proper reactions to the outcomes of games from their families, friends, coaches or culture at large. At some juncture in their lives they have dutifully adopted the physical, moral and emotional responses that we associate with being a “fan” and come to regard  “winning” as a goal that eclipses other social and emotional imperatives.

As a young adult working as a summer camp counselor here at school, I witnessed a three year old not only cheat, but do so in a practiced manner while playing Candyland. Noting that the game’s box advertised it as “A child’s first game,” I began ruminating on what this child had already learned about play in the first years of her life  – and how she had learned it. In the span of my teaching career at this small institution I have come to recognize children cheating in order to be able to claim themselves “winners” as a commonplace occurrence. As a parent and an educator, I have always found this troubling.

We cannot directly alter the messages sent by popular culture about games and organized sports other than to limit young children’s exposure to them. What we can do is provide our children with an understanding of the distinction between the role of play for children and the role that professional sports plays as entertainment in our culture of distractions.

We can do our best to explain the emotional outlet that identifying ourselves with a team and cheering loudly at sporting events in the company of others provides. We can shed light as to why we say “we” won when our chosen team is victorious. We can explain the cathartic nature of groaning or booing in apparent disgust.

We can make it clear that these are generally tempered emotional exhibits that are limited to the game we are viewing and, like the events at which we indulge in them, are short lived and without real consequence.

We can also describe the pitfalls of losing our perspective and overinvesting our emotions in the outcomes of these entertainments. We can outline how allowing our emotions to attach meaning to a game beyond the diversion it has provided has been linked to reckless driving, heart attacks and domestic violence and thus the importance of remembering that it really is “just a game.”

As a starting point, we can step back and examine the attitudes and behaviors associated with our own fandom of sports and the roots thereof. In considering the things our children hear us say and see us do in association with competitive play as parents, coaches and spectators, are these things consistent with the reasons we originally enrolled our children in tee ball, pee wee soccer, tumble tots and tyke tennis? Such an inventory can help us decide if we are effectively teaching our children what we believe and what we actually want them to learn from and about competitive play.

At the very least we can begin to consciously shift the spotlight of importance in our dialogues about competitive play with children by engaging them in more meaningful questions than, “Did you win?”

Should you choose to do so, I would welcome your additions to the examples I list below.

Did you get to play?

Did you enjoy playing?

Were you ever nervous? How did you work through that feeling?

What position(s) did you play? Which did you like best? Why?  

Did you learn anything new about playing the position(s)?

What were you hoping to do in the game? Did you get to do it? Was that a new goal for you? Do you think that goal was realistic? Have you been thinking about goals for your next game?

Was there anything you did that you were especially proud of?

Did any other feelings come up for you during the game?

Was there anything you discovered you needed to work on? When and how will you do that?

How did your team play together? Did you have any particular plays that your coach wanted you to use? Did they work?

What did your coach do or say when you or one of your teammates made a mistake?

Did you and your teammates support each other when you made mistakes?

Were you able to teach something to a teammate? Learn something from a teammate?

What did you think of the other team? How did you treat them?

Were there any players on the other team that stood out to you?

What do you think that I, your parent, expect of you when you’re playing?