In 1929, an industrialist in Philadelphia whose factories had been plagued by vandalism sought to curtail the problem by organizing the boys in the community into athletic teams. Within a few years, his effort became Pop Warner Football. A few years later, a group of parents in Williamsport, Pa., started what was to become Little League Baseball.
Prior to the development of these two programs, kids organized their own games using shared equipment, if any at all. They drew foul lines and cobbled together goals in the bare dirt and the stubbly weeds of vacant lots and backyards. Kids shared equipment with each other. They picked teams in a manner that reflected the sometimes painful reality that some kids were proven winners and others were not. Rules were adjusted to fit the situation. Disagreements were settled without referees, or the game dissolved and a lesson was learned.
From its start in the 1930’s, the model of adult-organized and miniaturized versions of professional sports has spread from baseball and football to almost every team sport, including soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. Children may have been deprived of some self-organizing and negotiating skills, but, when one considers the electronically dominated sedentary alternatives, for the most part, adult-organized team youth sports have been a positive.
Of course, there have been some growing pains because an adult sport that has simply been miniaturized doesn’t necessarily fit well with young minds and bodies that are still developing. In some sports, adult/parent coaches now are required to undergo rigorous training in hopes of making the sport more child appropriate. However, the truth remains that, when teams compete, there are going to be winners and losers.
I recently read a newspaper article that included references to a few recent studies that suggest humans are hard wired to win (Sapolsky, Robert. “The Grim Truth Behind the ‘Winner Effect.’ ” The Wall Street Journal. Feb. 24, 2017). Well, not to win exactly but to be more likely to win again once they have been victorious, a phenomenon known as the “winner effect.”
A mouse that has been allowed to win a fixed fight with another mouse is more likely to win his next fight. Other studies on a variety of species, including humans, have found that winning can elevate testosterone levels and suppress stress-mediating hormones – winning boosts confidence and risk taking. More recent studies on zebra fish have demonstrated that a region of the habenula, a portion of the brain, seems to be critical for controlling these behaviors and chemical mediators.
Of course, the problem is that, when there are winners, there have to be losers. From time to time, the adult organizers have struggled with how to compensate for this unfortunate reality in the structure of their youth sports programs. One response has been to give every participant a trophy. Except when the children are so young that they don’t know which goal is theirs, however, awarding trophies to all is a transparent and foolish charade. The winners know who they are and so do the losers. Skillful and compassionate coaches of both winning and losing teams can cooperate to soften the cutting edge of competition, but it will never disappear. It should be fun to play, but it is always going to be more fun to win.
If there is a solution, it falls on the shoulders of parents, educators, and sometimes pediatricians to help the losers find environments and activities in which their skills and aptitudes will give them the greatest chance of enjoying the benefits of the “winner effect.” Winning isn’t everything, but it feels a lot better than losing. If we can help a child to win once – whether it is on the athletic field or in a classroom – it is more likely he or she will do it again.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at email@example.com.