(Photo: 18 year-old college-bound soccer players leading a cheer with 7 & 8 year-olds)
Battle. Big guns. War. Often, we here words like these describe a sporting event and its competitors. Of course, advertisers spend big marketing bucks on media coverage of games likening competition to some war-like, angry confrontation. For many, this characterization is natural and even lighthearted, but there is another side. For some, this flippant talk of war and battle on the playing field smacks of naiveté at best but insensitive insult at worst. Should we really continue to compare sports to the life-and-death reality of war? Even high school football with its physical clash falls far short of the brutality of authentic combat. In fact, it seems offensive to the men and women who pay with their lives, health, and mental well-being to compare sport with their military service.
Moreover, evidence suggests there is a link between hostility and burnout (Maslach & Leiter, 1997; The Truth About Burnout). Playing sport out of anger is only effective in the short-term. One only needs to visit a soccer field on any weekend to see dads pacing the sideline like caged lions about to watch a showdown between gladiators. Seasons without parent ejections from their son or daughter’s youth or high school games are rare. Consider two incidences in the past year. In New York, a stabbing at a Little League game left one man dead, and in Utah, a referee died from a player’s fatal punch. One seasoned, expert youth soccer coach asks, “Why all the hatred?” What adults need to embrace and model for their players is this: If we do not have opponents, there will be no one to play.
A new paradigm of praxis must pervade all sports in order for participants—spectators and players alike—to win in a way that truly counts. The answer is joy. Joy trumps anger. Joy is sustainable while anger is self-consuming. When athletes learn to love hard work and value subjugating themselves for their teammates, greatness ensues. Imagine the results if hate, hostility, and anger were replaced with respect, joy, and service. Evidence suggests a paradoxical outcome—winning. Teams who respect each other, their coaches, the officials, and their opponents do better. Athletes who play from the perspective of joy play longer and burn out less. Teammates who focus on serving their teammates—looking for the assist versus the goal or the sacrifice bunt versus the hit—are happier.
Consider these two examples, which occurred during a supervised Saturday morning recreational soccer league last season. On one end of the park, a volunteer coach of a six year-old team asked his parents to cheer for both teams when either side scored. By the end of the match, both sides of parents rallied and cheered for both teams’ goals, and all little athletes followed suit. On the other side of the park, a father and his boy’s coach had to be separated from engaging in a shoving match at a U8—yes, this means “under eight years old”–game wherein parents and players lost sight of the real goal of youth sports. The disparity in the faces of the groups leaving the field that day told the whole story. The teams that witnessed the near-fight looked stressed, sad, or concerned, and the other group left in high spirits regardless of the final score. Which group would we suspect looked forward to the next game most?
If we buy into the idea that sport is a microcosm of life, let’s teach our kids to play with joy not hate.
Sports and the Stats
Sport teaches incredible lessons, and there is strong evidence that points to the benefits of sport. According to study in North Carolina published by the Benefits of Youth Sports (2001; http://benefitsofyouthsports.com/) the benefits include:
- § GPA: The mean for athletes was 2.98. For non-athletes it was 2.17.
- § Algebra end-of-course testing: The mean for athletes was 66.1 v. non-athletes at 57.9.
- § English end-of-course testing: The mean for athletes was 61.4 v. non-athletes at 50.8.
- § Attendance: Athletes missed and average of 6.3 days in a 180 day school year v. 11.9 for non-athletes.
- § Discipline Referrals: Of discipline referrals made by the schools, 33.3% were athletes v. 41.8% that were non-athletes.
- § Dropout Rate: The mean dropout percentage for athletes was 0.6% v. 10.32% for non-athletes.
- § Graduation Rate: The mean graduation rate for athletes was 99.4% v. non-athletes at 93.51%
Moreover, Benefits of Youth Sports reports that 95% of executive vice presidents of Fortune 500 companies participated in high school sports.