Is vilifying the winners in youth sports creating a nation of wimps?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March 2011.

Saturday was the best day of the week when I was young because it was game day. In the era before never-ending sports schedules, game day had meaning. In soccer, our season lasted about 12 weeks with games on 10 consecutive Saturdays. In basketball, we played our games on Saturday mornings with the exception of 2-3 tournaments which included Sunday games. In Little League, we played one night per week and a second game on Saturday. I spent the entire week waiting for Saturday, for the chance to play the game.

We played all week on the playground, at parks and in my front yard, but Saturday was special. On Saturdays, we put on the uniform. We played for league championships even though our team’s record was largely forgotten as soon as we turned to the next season. The only record from any team of my youth that I recall is my 6th grade basketball team, as we went 20-0, a nice, easy round number to remember. Otherwise, there were championships won, championships missed, lousy records, and last-place finishes, but none lasted much longer than the final buzzer, whistle or out.

In sixth grade, we played our league games at Presentation School. We wore our uniforms proudly even as the temperature in the linoleum-floor gym never reached far past freezing. I started every game with Goose Bumps, not sure if it was the nervous excitement of the pre-game jitters or the unheated winter gymnasium.

One game, we played St. Lawrence. After the first quarter, we led 19-0. Our coach dutifully benched the starters and took off our press, and we watched the rest of the game from the sideline. I was disappointed. I thought it unfair that we were punished for being better. While I had no interest in embarrassing the opponent by running up the score, I felt begrudged at the missed opportunity to play and compete, as I had to wait for another week for a similar opportunity.

Recently, a debate raged about teams running up the score on their overmatched opponents. Numerous pundits weighed in on this national dilemma. These one-sided discussions typically vilify the victors. Why portray the losing team as victims and the winning team as scoundrels? Why not examine the teams on the wrong side of the lopsided games? Why not hold them accountable for their performance (or lack thereof)?

My sixth-grade team was good. We were a bunch of kids who grew up playing together, who competed hard and who were fortunate to have good, caring coaches who encouraged our effort and fun and who emphasized our skill development. We had a dominant post player, but he dominated through footwork, not size. On our bench, we had a future Olympian, but he was just a skinny soccer player who played basketball for fun. While we were more talented than most teams, we were not recruited to play together, and we did not feature an obvious height, strength or speed advantage. We were a neighborhood school team playing other neighborhood school teams, and we tended to be slightly more skilled and disciplined and competed harder.

In our first game as 5th graders – our first season of organized basketball, my first time in a basketball uniform in my life -we played a dominant 6’2 6th grader and lost by 50+ points. I was not embarrassed. I did not suffer from low self-esteem because we managed only 10 points. Instead, I realized that we had a lot of work to do to be a good team. We learned about competitive basketball in a hurry.

Then, as 6th graders, we were the top dogs, not the vanquished opponent. While I had harbored no resentment toward a better team that drilled us, we were penalized for being good because of the negative perception of teams and coaches who play their starters when winning by 20+ points. The culture dictated that we could not play anymore because of the competitive inequality. However, was the competitive inequality our fault? Why punish those who excel?

When I was young, I practiced every day. I had a TV and Nintendo and my mom desperately tried to get me to play almost every musical instrument possible, but I spent hours in my front yard shooting or playing against neighborhood kids. At school, we raced from class to recess and lunch to play for as long as possible. We got in trouble daily for changing into running shoes during class and for returning from lunch five minutes after the bell.

We worked to be better than other teams. We policed ourselves, worked hard, competed and practiced. We had a volunteer father-coach like everyone else. We played on a crappy gym floor like everyone else. We practiced twice per week like everyone else. We were a neighborhood school team like everyone else. Since we were so much like everyone else, why were we made to be apologetic when we managed to move beyond the herd and excel? Why does winning carry with it a negative connotation?

My sister teaches elementary school math. When students get a bad grade, parents complain much like parents who watch their son’s team lose a lop-sided game. When I underachieved on a test or assignment, my parents questioned me and made sure that I studied more for the next one. Today, parents blame the teachers for their children’s poor grades. My sister tells parents that their son or daughter did not do his or her homework, did not attend after-school review sessions for those needing extra help, and did not do well on tests. The parents still find the grade unfair. Rather than asking the child why he ignored his assignments or skipped review sessions or failed to study, the parents blame the teacher for being unfair because she actually has expectations for students to meet. For the parents and students, there is no personal responsibility or accountability: it is someone else’s fault.

In lop-sided defeats, the losing team plays the victim role and takes no responsibility for its performance. Rather than question whether the team works hard enough, practices the right things, has the right mentality, prepares correctly and more, they criticize the opponent for playing too hard, pressing, playing starters or whatever the case may be. While there are some cases where the coach/team is out of control, there are many games like our game against St. Lawrence. If we worked and practiced hard during the week, don’t we deserve to play as much as the players on the wrong end of the score? What do the players on either team learn if one team stands at half court and holds the ball for half of the game to keep the margin of victory respectable?

I have no problems with leagues that turn off the scoreboard, start the score at zero each quarter or run the clock in a blowout. However, I do have a problem with the vilification of teams that excel and play hard, and the notion that the good players should not play. If you do not like being on the wrong side of lop-sided games, practice. Compete. Play harder. Find a league more fitting your skill or talent level.

In 6th grade, when basketball ended, I moved to Little League. We were the worst team in the league. We were the Indians, and it was the same year that Major League, featuring the hapless Indians, premiered in the theaters. We only won a couple games all season and were on the wrong end of a lot of lop-sided games. It was also one of the most fun seasons of my youth because of the guys on the team.

When I was young, lop-sided games or losing seasons provided life-learning lessons, much like a poor grade on the test. Now, parents make excuses for their children, and we blame those who excel. Rather than challenge the less talented teams to improve to close the competitive gap, we guilt the good teams into sliding back toward the center. We promote mediocrity to ensure that nobody’s feelings are hurt.

Then, when college players transfer even though they average 25 minutes per game as a freshman, everyone wonders about this generation and their lack of patience. It is not patience. Their parents have never allowed them to fail. Parents ensure success; they transfer schools, run out coaches, complain about teacher’s grading policies or whatever it takes to ensure their child’s success. Parents even call college professors to complain about their child’s grades.

While nobody wants a lop-sided win (or loss) or a bad grade, it happens. It’s life. Part of the sporting experience is to teach life lessons. Shielding children from these lessons to protect their self-esteem is not fair to the good teams, and it fails to prepare those on the wrong side of the blowouts for life. They learn to play the role of the victim rather than using the lop-sided defeat as motivation to work harder or improve.

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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4 Responses to “Is vilifying the winners in youth sports creating a nation of wimps?”

  1. Carl Pierson says:

    Outstanding article. The passage about parents blaming teachers and coaches for their child’s poor performance was particularly poignant.
    Students and athletes that take responsibility for their success and their failure will be far more prepared for success in life.
    Thank you for authoring this outstanding piece.

  2. demons45 says:

    Love this article and will be handing it out to my team once we get back from the state track meet this weekend. I believe you have hit the nail on the head about accountability and expectations. It goes in like with a book I am reading, Bringing Out the Best In Others. The book identifies 3 things to help people excel in their chosen endeavour: expectations, accountability and feedback. Your article really hits home because I have experienced this on a personal level when I was younger. There was one team that beat our brains out every year yet they worked out all summer and myself and one other guy on my team did. So when we played we had 2 guys that could compete vs. their 10. Great article with information every parent and child should read.

  3. Dan G says:

    “What do the players on either team learn if one team stands at half court and holds the ball for half of the game to keep the margin of victory respectable?”

    They don’t learn anything by holding on to the ball, but there are things that a coach can do to minimize the disparity in the score and still have skill development taking place.

    I had a 6th grade girls team that was by far the best team in a basketball league this past winter. The majority of the team was early developers and the average player was about 6 inches taller than the average player on another team. My advice to the coach was to do things that can help the development of her players. Instead of winning by 50, they were winning by 20-30. There’s things a youth coach can do like focus on more skill development during practice instead of working on tactics and having post players play on the perimeter with the ball in their hands during games.

  4. admin says:

    Dan:

    My response would be: Why keep a team that’s winning by 50 points in the same league with the inferior teams? Why not move them to a more challenging league? Why not break up the team?

    Also, per my team, we were not winning because we were bigger, stronger, or faster. In fact, in the game that I mentioned, their PG was far quicker than I. We were winning because we were more skilled.

    I agree that there are things that can be done, and the winning team is not always without fault. However, I’m tired of all the blame always falling on the skilled or talented or successful. At some point, shouldn’t we raise expectations for all, rather than attempting to limit those who are excelling to make things “more fair”? Fair to whom? Certainly not to those who are excelling.

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