The definition of a game is to score more points than the other side.
I get it, we all want kids to have fun, enjoy being a kid, and equal opportunity to learn. But at what age do we start to teach them hard work matters? When do we teach them showing up isn’t all you need to do to win a trophy?
Why should the new kid, the kid who isn't as good, who has never played, who is out of shape, who doesn’t exercise or practice at home, play over the kids who do? Why should the kids who do the hard work or are better have to lose, so that the parent who paid feels good to watch their kid run up and down the field? What message are we giving our kids about how the future will be? About who wins in life and who succeeds?
Believe it or not, I think we are giving our kids the wrong message. Just show up and you should win. That’s not reality.
Recreational activities, like gym class are fun, but kids still always try to compete. It is human nature to be competitive and to want to win. It is also just as important to learn to lose. Ask any gym teacher, there are simply better athletes than others. That doesn’t mean however, that those kids don’t have a chance. (Recreational sports are different; those are designed for fun. I am talking about true competitive sports.)
Larry Bird went to the gym every morning at 6 am. He propped himself on crutches, and shot 500 free throws daily. “I wasn’t real quick, and I wasn’t real strong. Some guys will just take off and it’s like, whoa. So, I beat them with my mind and my fundamentals.”
As a parent, my answer to my kids has always been, practice. If those kids are better than you, get better. Complaining doesn’t change anything. Complaining doesn’t change the fact that another kid is a better dribbler, shooter, or faster. And as a coach, I struggle with this question.
Yes, genetics matter. Age matters. Size matters. Some kids develop later than others. And at the end of the day, even the kid with the most talent doesn’t mean they will automatically be the best. It requires passion and a love for the sport. It requires not only desire to be better but commitment to it.
I am not saying two-year old’s kicking a soccer ball should play to win (even though if you attend a game, you’d be amazed at the parents who cheer as if it’s the Gold Cup). I am also not saying third graders shouldn’t play because there are bigger and better kids than them.
What age sports should convert to true competition, where talent determines playing time? I don’t know that answer, but I do know that standard is getting younger and younger.
And kids know this. To pretend they don’t know this hierarchy is ignorant. Even adults compare themselves, and kids do it constantly. It is part of growing up. They know who is better at spelling, math, reading, sports, singing, etc.
If you deny this, and sit the better kid, just so everyone feels happy that everyone is getting playing time, we are not creating inclusion. We are fostering resentment and animosity towards the kid that everyone knows shouldn't be there. Competitive kids play hard and practice to win. When points are lost because "that kid" is in the game, we are setting an example that winning doesn't matter. We are saying everyone should be rewarded for just showing up. Winning does matter! (assuming they are old enough to play competitive sports, not recreational sports)
America was built on hard work, innovation, and competition. Competition forces people to improve, to try harder, to play smarter, to invest time, to do what it takes to be the best they can be.
I grew up as one of the youngest and only girls in a neighborhood of boys. I had to run faster, be smarter, and work harder to not be picked last, or lose every game. But when I got to elementary school, I was fast. I won every event at field day. I used to run city races on Labor Day and was even recruited by the high school coach to run cross country.
But, when I started playing basketball in high school, I knew the older and better kids were going to play in the games, and I would sub, until I was the oldest and better kid. I loved going to practice, that was enough for me. I was learning and having fun. I didn’t care if I sat as a freshman on Varsity because I knew I wasn’t at the same level yet as the Juniors and Seniors, and that was the way it was. So, I practiced every day, by myself, whenever I could. My mother never complained to the coaches or the league that I wasn’t playing enough. I simply had to get better and work harder. When I subbed in for 2 minutes, I was ecstatic, but I never thought I should be playing over the others. I wasn’t good enough.
So why are we giving our kids trophies for just showing up?
Why isn’t practicing with a team and playing with players better than you, enough? Why do parents put this pressure to watch their kids play in games, even if they shouldn’t? Why is scoring a basket in a game given precedent over the fact that your kid is learning, part of a team, loves to go to practice, and is having fun?
We are doing our kids and our country a disservice by trying to pretend that we are all equal. We are not.
Tom Brady invested his life and time into being the best quarter back he could in football. I am sure he doesn’t believe he can walk into an NBA game tomorrow and start playing point guard.
Professional athletes like Steph Curry, even after he was in the NBA, realized he wasn’t good enough. He has as entire Master Class on how he transformed himself into one of the best shooters and players in the game, through practice and hard work.
I know many will read this and get angry, especially those who’s kids aren’t the best athletes. But my point isn’t that those kids shouldn’t try or play, my point is let’s keep competitive sports competitive.
The question shouldn’t be, “Why isn’t my kid playing?” The question should be, “What can my kid do to be better so he or she is the one playing?”
Or maybe there is a better sport or activity that your kid can excel in. Maybe this is the wrong sport.
Let’s make our kids strive for more. Want to be the best they can be. Find something they love that they can succeed in, that they can be great at, and feel good about it.
And maybe it isn’t getting a basket, maybe it is making a lay-up in practice, maybe it is knowing they are on the practice string of a winning team. Most of the NFL football players never make a headline, most of their names are unknown, but they matter.
Drew Bledsoe said about Tom Brady, “When he was on practice squad his rookie year, I actually called my financial advisor about him. ‘Hey, I really like this kid. He’s never gonna be a starter… Tommy was a young kid out of Michigan, a skinny little twerp. The one thing that stuck out about Tommy when he was a young kid was that he was immediately an extremely hard worker.
We know the rest of the story. Tom Brady proved everyone wrong. But he also grew into his sport, as an adult. Not being good doesn’t mean you can’t ever be good. Many boys develop in their teens.
But maybe the standard should be individual, instead of sacrificing the success of a team or a win over pretending someone is better than they are. Sitting on the bench is part of the game. Because mediocrity is normal. It is human. It is OK. Not everyone can be Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
Wanting to win is competition. If you ask any kid on any team at any age, if they want to play or they want to win, most would say both- but if they had to choose, they would choose winning. Who doesn’t want to be on the winning team?
We need to stop making our kids believe they are better than they are. We need to teach them to take responsibility for what they want, to work for it, to put the effort in, to do what it takes to become what they want to be. We need to teach them that being on a team is enough, everyone doesn’t need to score.
And stop expecting a trophy for showing up. A trophy feels so much better after trying as hard as you can, exhausted with sweat and tears, and walking away knowing you worked for it.
Professional sports generates billions of dollars, because we all want to be part of a winning team. Because, being on the winning team feels good, if its your team, even if you are on the sidelines...
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