How Parents Ruin Youth Sports…By Obsessing About Winning

Lisa’s story on The, “Parents Ruin Sports for Their Kids by Obsessing About Winning,”  appears below:

Every sports cliché you can think of, I have uttered: teamwork, respect for the coach, being part of something bigger than yourself, and practice making perfect. But as I look back over a decade and a half watching my sons play youth sports, I have to confess the dirty truth: I wanted to win.  I worked hard, I spent hours in preparation and I wanted to win.  I had organized snacks and brought drinks.  I scrubbed uniforms and cleats.  I drove for miles, arrived an hour early, stood in freezing temperatures, forsaken anything else I might have done with my day. I did not want to return home without a win.

youth sports, youth soccer

The aching desire to win can be seen on the sidelines of competitions even among the youngest participants. Parents pace the sidelines, twitching at every kick or pitch or shot of the ball, shouting exhortations at their children and the team. I have watched parents cover their eyes, unable to watch, such is the stress they feel.  In many cases it becomes clear that it is the parents who want to win. Parents want the dopamine thrill of winning, the heady rush that adults feel with success.  Winning, even for spectators (and the research was done only on males), gives a testosterone surge, and losing actually lowers hormone levels.  As parents we so identify with our kids that their success quickly becomes our own.  As spectators, parents seek confirmation even at the earliest stages that great athletic possibilities exist for their child:  a better team, starting spot, varsity experience or college scholarship.

Soccer has kept my family close. Long car trips, weekends away, and a subject of shared interest that does not involve me mentioning the words “homework,” “study,” or “college” has drawn us together.  But it is all too easy, after a miserable, long drive, bumper to bumper down the New Jersey and then Pennsylvania turnpikes in foul winter weather, to forget why I have my kids play sports and just think, They have got to win this game.  It starts so innocently, asking my child, “How is the team training? How good are these teams you are up against this weekend? Have you played them before and did you win?  Do you think you guys can win this weekend?” No fake casual tone can hide the message: I have driven across three states in wretched conditions and am now going to spend a weekend in a noisy hotel looking out over a highway or perhaps the garbage dumpsters, so you better make this worth my while.  No kid needs this pressure.  Their coaches want to win, and their teammates want to win. Knowing that they could let down their parents is counterproductive.

When my youngest son was about 10, he told me why he loved weekend soccer trips. Eighteen boys he likes, playing together on and off the field for 48 hours, with short breaks to sleep and eat junk food adds up to one happy kid. Winning?  Winning, he told me, was fun, but even when they lost, the boys had just as much fun together.  

Parents think they want success for their kids but in many ways they want if for themselves.  Their kids, it turns out, want pizza.

By focusing too heavily on winning not only do we parents fail to focus on what is important, but far worse, we refute what is important. We lose sight of sports as a vehicle for learning and, instead, convert it into a means for parents to live out their own athletic dreams or take a gamble on the unlikely event that sports will pave a road into college. I would argue that athletic competitions offer one of the very best venues for learning some of life’s most important lessons.  But these lessons don’t require victories, and in fact many, like some of the following, are best taught in defeat:

  • There is always someone better than you, at everything.
  • Those who enforce the rules can be mistaken or even biased and conditions under which you have to operate are often bad.
  • You can do your very best and still not succeed. This isn’t unfair, it just is.

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  1. Ellen says

    I don’t really feel that way – I love being in the moment of the sport with my kids on the field- in fact many feel that I am “way too in the moment” because I yell ‘great job” even if my kid is just near the ball! Not because I want them to win but because I want them to know that they are adored just for being there – I never even remember if they won or lost – literally the next week I can not remember. I do think many parents think there kid is the greatest that ever played the sport and believe the win or loss is because of their kid – way too much pressure for the kid and the parent. Enjoy the game – win or lose-life isn’t fair but it can be a lot of fun if you don’t take it so seriously.

  2. says

    I think this is part of why I’ve never connected well with sports. I’m competitive, and I like to do well at things, but I don’t like the idea of getting worked up over something that, in reality, is arbitrary and doesn’t matter. The rules are all made up, and the accomplishments don’t produce anything. But people behave as if winning a game has proven something. I get enjoying the activity of playing and it’s fun to push yourself and work hard, and you need a goal to move play forward, but beyond that I don’t see the importance. “Winning” would only impact me as far as it impacted my kid.

    • says

      That it the hard part, how it impacts your kids. Mine have wanted pizza and not cared about the outcome and sometimes they have cared very deeply. Many times I have thought that all of this is harder on the parents than the kids.

  3. says

    “Personal Best” was what we always told our boys, and in a perfect world they might have believed us. The baseball league they played in was extremely competitive and when you play in Southern California, you play ALL YEAR LONG! So there was really no let up. The field and its surroundings was like a microscosm of a city because, with multiple kids, you are sometimes there all weekend long. The younger siblings play with each other while the older ones play ball–parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are all there milling around, eating breakfast, lunch, and sometimes taking food home for dinner. Parents know each other well (sometimes TOO well), and it all take on an almost Peyton Place-like quality. It is all-encompassing and stressful…and winning is VERY important. I think back fondly on those days, because they took up a large chunk of my kids’ growing years, and the tears and cheers made huge impressions on them. But, I cannot say that I really miss them.

    • says

      OMG you have just given me a reason to be happy about snow. All year long would kill me. The kids play indoors in the winter but it is much lower key. Other parents have been one of the unexpected treats of kids sports as I have met and made friends with some of the loveliest people…a few not…but by and large people with whom I have enjoyed long sideline weekends.

  4. says

    “Parents think they want success for their kids but in many ways they want if for themselves. Their kids, it turns out, want pizza.” I love that quote. I think my grandson was more excited about drinking gatorade and it was OK that they won or lost. Very well said.

    • says

      Thank you Sandra. For many years my kids cared far more about after game treats, a Gatorade or an ice cream, than the outcome of their games. That does change over time.

  5. says

    If ‘winning’ weren’t important we’d all still be in caves. That said- there’s plenty to enjoy all the journey.

  6. says

    My kids are young, so we aren’t doing the sports thing right now. That said, if we were- I’m sure I’d be a competitive mom! But so far, all they seem interested in is drama and music. The competition in that circle is slightly more subtle, but still- parental over-involvement can create drama.

  7. says

    It’s very hard not to focus on winning when that is the nature of the activity. I did hear a mom recently advocate for just telling your kids, “I love the way you…” after the game/ performance, win, lose or draw. I love that!

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