Yesterday, I wrote about a recent blowout in a California high school girls’ basketball game, where the final score was 161-2. I quoted Colin Cowherd from ESPN, who played down the uproar over the game.
After writing the article, I thought more about Cowherd’s comments, which included the following:
“The kids were over it in 15 minutes. You know who couldn’t get over it? The parents…They want their kids to have fight and grit but are afraid of the process to get there. You know how to get there? Crying. Failure. Embarrassment….You know how you get grit? You lose 161-2. You don’t get grit winning 161-2…. Somebody lost a basketball game. We’re uncomfortable with it. The kids aren’t.”
There are two issues that the game and Cowherd’s comments bring up that I want to mention. The first is what are the key elements of competition. The second is the impact of those elements on the participants.
Elements of Competition
You remember why you play sports? In the beginning, it was fun, enjoyable to do physical activities with others that actually pitted participants against each other to push them to strive to greater heights together. Sure there were disappointing losses, but also exhilarating victories. The defeats made the victories that much sweeter. At the core, it was fun. That is one reason we called it RECREATION (the act of creating anew). These activities were designed to recharge, re-energize us.
Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to have fun at these games, to make them times of enjoyment rather than work or war. Today, 75% of children quit all organized sports by the time they are 13. The number one reason? It isn’t fun anymore.
Be sure. These children don’t quit playing. They just quit playing where it is so serious. They go elsewhere, places without the pressure, even making up their own games, like some of the extreme sports today.
While I agree that sports can teach us a lot about determination, commitment, or “grit”, as Colin refers to it, I don’t think this grit is one of the primary lessons to learn in sports. There are many other character qualities more important than grit and that sports particularly fosters, unless we morph sports into wartime, as many coaches do today. When we make sports a battle to fight rather than a game to play, then certainly grit becomes primary. When we turn athletes into warriors, “crying, embarrassment, and failure” certainly become significant in that athletes’ development. But we do so at a cost. When we make sports war, we lose this key element of enjoyment that the sports environment is designed to engender, regardless of whether we win or lose. And when we lose that enjoyment, we are the losers – losing the participation of those we want to influence to become better human beings through sports.
Impact of Competition
While I am sure that some of those who played in this lopsided game in California were “over it in 15 minutes” as Cowherd claims, I am not so sure that this applies to everyone who participated. We are much more complicated than that, or at least I am.
While I don’t remember a lopsided defeat like this one in any of my team sports participation, I did suffer humiliation at my own hands mainly in golf. I left the course in great shame after I played very poorly in the first round of the high school state championship and the first round of a national junior golf tournament I qualified for. I wasn’t over it in 15 minutes. Sure, I got over the initial humiliation, but those rounds stuck with me, long after they faded from my rear-view mirror. They strongly reinforced my already struggling self-worth – for many years!
This ability of sports to touch our deepest parts is one of the reasons we want our kids playing sports. As John Wooden says, “Sports doesn’t build character; they reveal it.” Character revealed can be rebuilt. Sports are great for the revelation and the rebuilding.
However, we must be careful with this tool, and, we haven’t been. We haven’t worked at keeping competition more about striving with other players and, instead, have let it become more and more about striving against the other players. Players need to win, and players need to lose, but winning has become the absolute focus. One of the results of such a focus is a humiliating loss like this one in California, where the coach actually defended his strategy as needing to prepare for upcoming district games.
I loved to play sports as a kid. Football most of all, but I also loved baseball, kickball, basketball and eventually golf, although you might say I had more of a love/hate relationship with golf. I won some games and cheered with my teammates. I lost some games and cried on my own. For the most part, Winning gave me confidence. Losing spurred me to greater commitment and effort, while fostering team dependence.
I want young players to love to play sports for many years to come. So come on Colin, let’s be uncomfortable with this game but for the right reasons – the players not the parents!