The Case for Competition in Youth Sports

The lessons kids learn on the field prepare them for life.

By far the most popular spectator sport in America is football. No other sport even comes close. The juggernaut of football is an impenetrable fortress that will forever represent itself as America’s modernly anointed past time. But there’s one problem with the assumption that football will reign supreme for all time: While football is in a state of steady growth in terms of popularity as a spectator sport, the sport itself is in declining in terms of player participation at the youth and high school levels.

One theory for this decline is largely attributed to the inherent dangers present in the sport. Namely, the long-term repercussions related to recurring head trauma. In recent years, prominent figures such as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell have prognosticated the demise of football. The recent hit movie Concussion also highlighted the possible long-term health consequences from playing football. Even the President of the United States weighed in, commenting, “I would not let my son play football.” Still, despite the violence and potential health consequences, football remains immensely popular as a spectator sport. Of the 50 most watched televised sporting events in 2013, an astounding 47 of them were football games (46 were NFL games as well as the BCS championship game). According to Forbes, the value of the 32 NFL franchises is $62.9 billion That’s nearly as much as the 30 NBA and 30 MLB teams combined. Still as popular as football is, most kids would rather watch it than participate.

Where Have All the Sports Gone?

Some kids may be avoiding helmets and shoulder pads in favor of safer alternatives, but the focus on violence misses the mark of the real issue at large – it’s not just football that is in a state of decline, but youth participation in all major sports is declining. In fact, statistics by the 2015 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association revealed a drastic drop in participation over the past five years by children ages 6 to 17. This startling finding begs the question, why? Kids today are more apt to use technology for entertainment, and some point to the rising out of pocket costs for sport participation. Furthermore, kids nowadays have more choices such as new non-traditional ‘sports’ that have evolved in recent years (e.g., lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, Pokémon GO). But statistics suggest that kids play fewer sports in general regardless of which type. Even the ever-popular youth sport of soccer has been steadily declining in youth participation.

The modern model for sport where both winners and losers are equal is an outdated and antiquated concept. Kids don’t want to participate when there is at least a fifty percent chance that they will lose or fail. The harsh reality of sport is an affront to the new-world concept of equality and trophies for all. Team sport is a zero-sum prospect. For every winner, there must be a loser. In individual sport the odds are stacked against participants to an even greater degree. There’s only one gold medalist, tournament winner, or race winner. Everyone is judged or ranked in an individual sport from first to last. With such daunting prospects resulting from sport participation, many kids would rather play games online where they can simply start over when they lose or spend time on social media where they can count friends and “likes.”

Children who learn to handle adversity on the field are more adept to manage life’s struggles. [Photo credit: Pixabay]

But losses, “dislikes,” defeat, and injury aren’t just part of sport, they are part of life. How we face these traumas are the very mark of our character and identity. Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan says, “I’ve missed over 9000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game-winning shot 26 times. I have failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”

Jordan’s speaks to the crux of the importance behind sport and competition. It isn’t the example of Michael Jordan and his flashy dunks and six championships that are important to remember him by. Rather, it’s the fact that the greatest player of all time was cut as a freshman from his high school basketball team. And not only in sport has Michael Jordan suffered defeat. He lost his father who was tragically murdered by gun violence. From this loss, Jordan recently spoke out against senseless violence and pledged two-million dollars of his own money to strengthen the bond between law enforcement and the communities they pledge to serve. One might contend that the examples of Jordan’s failures tell us more about the man then his wins.

Compete for Life

Now more than ever it’s important to realize the necessity to compete. Globalization threatens our job security, random violence threatens our personal security, and record levels of stress threaten our physical and emotional well-being. We all need to compete to prepare for such rigors, including our kids. According to Harvard scholar and author Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD, who has studied the effect of kids and competition, kids who compete in sports acquire important life lessons, which she calls “Competitive Kid Capital.” Friedman notes five specific lessons that kids need to learn: internalizing the importance of winning, bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, learning how to perform within time limits, learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and being able to perform under the gaze of others.

Furthermore, renowned TED talker and leading expert on vulnerability Brene Brown suggests the most important aspect of becoming whole is experiencing struggle. She writes:

“Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle…If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own”

Of course, if that logic is valid for kids, certainly its valid for adults.

Let Kids Win and Lose

This summer, the Rio Olympics featured athletes in the throngs of ultimate competition – not for fame or money necessarily, but for pride and country. For every medalist, there were dozens of losers. The stakes in the Olympics are high – four years of training boiled down to one moment in time. This is exactly why the Olympics are so compelling. Sometimes in life too, four years comes down to a single moment. Last year, more than 39,000 kids applied to Harvard. Only 2,037 were accepted. Ninety-five percent of the incredibly smart kids who had the courage to apply to Harvard failed. Sometimes you wait four years to fall in love, land that job, or win the big contract. But sometimes after four years of hard work the marriage fails, you get downsized, or you lose the contract to a competitor.

Sport and competition are as important as school, church, and family in preparing us for life. I’m not a parent, but if I were I’d let my kid play football, basketball, tennis, or any other sport for that matter. Competing is an essential part of what it means to be human. The lessons learned from competition far outweigh the risk of injury and disappointment of failure.

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