The “Winning” Culture of School Sport

My first year of teaching I coached high school football. Several of the players who were a part of my position group were everything you looked for in an athlete: hard worker, competitive, successful on the field, good students. But, they stopped playing after 9th grade. Why? They had been playing tackle football since 4th grade and were burned out. After a football career of 6 years, they had had enough.  I started playing tackle football as soon as it was available where I grew up: 8th grade. I completed my career after my 12th grade year and finished playing football after 5 years. By 9th grade, some of my former players had already played for a longer period of time than I had my entire life. I played for a pretty successful football program where I grew up and for the majority of my career I was a starter in that program. If I were just starting football again today in the 8th grade, I would have never seen the field. I know this because I have coached modern 8th grade football too. The players I have coached now are so much more skilled at the game in 8th grade then I was because most have already played for the same amount of time as my entire football career.

How can you keep up with that? How can a learner new to something catch up when the game isn’t equitable in the first place? When have school sports become so elitist: for the select few who can afford to begin playing at a young age, traveling around to various clubs, academies, travel teams, camps etc. The only ones who stand a chance are the naturally gifted who can catch up with their athletic ability. How many children is that, anyway? 1? 2? Uncommon to say the least.

Doesn’t all of this fly in the face of what we want to teach kids about grit, determination, and hard work? Don’t we like to say that smart is not something you are, but something you become? Am I the only one who sees how this ultra competitive drive to “keep up with the Joneses” only serves to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots? Of course, we know that in terms of sport, much of our “athletic ability” is determined genetically. Hard work and determination will certainly lead to development of that ability, but the majority of us do have an eventual ceiling that we reach. When I was playing sports in middle school, there were always 1 or 2 boys who were far ahead of everyone else. Usually, it was because they developed physically earlier than the rest of us and often times there was a point (9th or 10th grade) where the rest of us caught up and many of us passed them by. These athletes were polished with their skill in middle school with very little room for growth. They had maxed out. I am seeing more and more athletes like this appear in middle school sports today and it isn’t because they are going through puberty at an earlier age. The reason is they are competing and training at a much earlier age. I am seeing some really polished athletes in the 8th grade and then they never get any better.  Why is this a problem? In our culture that is all about “winning”,  it completely marginalizes the learner who is new to the game.

If I were playing today, I would have never been given the chance to develop my skill because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play for any meaningful amount of time. I would have been considered “behind.”  I wonder how my athletic career would have turned out differently if I had rarely gotten the opportunity to play in 8th or 9th grade. Would I have continued with it? Or would I have fallen off like so many kids I see who stop playing sports early in high school.

The example I will share to illustrate this is when I was in 8th grade and playing youth baseball. I grew up in a northern state (Michigan) where baseball was played mostly in the summer only. That year, a new student moved from Florida who had grown up playing baseball year round. We all marveled at how “good” he was and he played shortstop and batted 3rd for us. We literally thought the guy was a superstar. In reality, his skill was just polished from having played for a much longer period of time.  By the time we were in the 12th grade, he was a part time corner infielder who hit in the bottom third of the line up. He wasn’t a superstar. He stopped getting better. He had reached his athletic ceiling in 8th grade.

As youth coaches (myself included) we are often fooled by players who have polished skill at a young age and view that as our measuring stick for future success in athletics.  The example above is becoming more and more the norm in my experience than the rare outlier.  So where does that leave us if we ignore the learners who are new to the game in favor of polished athletes?

Four years ago my school district cut middle school sports. People were outraged. I remember attending a school board meeting that was packed with voices from all areas of the community speaking in support of school based sport. I spoke passionately to the board that night as well. It didn’t matter. Sports were cut anyway. As a compromise, “middle school sports” were shifted to our community education programs. The students experience has been relatively unchanged these last four years, but the logistics of the system have changed drastically (for another post in time). The biggest difference is it relies on volunteer coaches who dedicate their time to kids for free. I admire that part of the program and I was a volunteer coach for 8th grade football the first couple of years when the model changed.

However, there is one big thing that nobody wants to talk about. It is the elephant in the room. It is the marginalization of so many students. I watch our “school games” occasionally still. Teams consist of 12-20 players (our school has about 480) and the pattern is pretty typical. If you look at the bench—all of the players who are new to the game (many of them minorities) sit on the bench 90% of the time. So who plays? The 5-8 players who play year round or travel ball.

Since when did it become necessary to play a sport year round or you would become, “behind the game when it comes to high school?” I see this in almost every team sport: Football, Basketball, Soccer, Baseball (which I still coach), Wrestling, Volleyball, even Track and Field. Take a look at any high school athlete’s (at least in Oregon) summer schedule. They have camps, practice, tournaments, 7 on 7’s, showcases, select teams, etc. etc. Not just for 1 sport, but for every sport they play. Why? So they can win. Because that’s what it is about—winning (and money). Winning the race to compete, winning the chance to be noticed, winning that college athletic scholarship that we all want to believe is easily attainable through the promises that are made to us. That’s why kids start so early, that’s why kids are burning out early, that’s why the kids who are new to a sport in middle school are perpetually marginalized and are never even getting a chance. Because the field they are playing on is rigged. That is the biggest tragedy of it all.

8 Comments on “The “Winning” Culture of School Sport

  1. Well written, my perspective as well. This “winning” emphasos not only burns kids out but I have seen an increase in disrespect/ unsportsman like behavior among the young (3rd- 6th grade) “elite” athletes. Alot of this stems from their parents playing through their kids. Just my 2 cents. Thanks for sharing. Rob

    • Thanks for the comment Rob. One thing that I definitely notice about many of the athletes you reference is that it is difficult to teach them to see a purpose in Physical Education classes. Not all, but many–would rather save their energy for practice or their match/game. I don’t have any suggestions or ideas on how to change this–just an observation I definitely notice.

  2. 3rd time trying to post a reply. Earlier ones too long to re-post. Gist is that we operate a no cut, equity of play, equity of team construction, no central/displayed scorekeeping league at middle school that works well. Am proud of the opportunities it gives kids. We get parental pressure to make it more competitive – but we leave that to the for profit ‘community’ leagues.

    • We do operate a “no cut” policy at our level. We talk to the talk about equity of team construction–but, I feel like there are some definite institutional and subtle things that actually occur do not promote this equity.

      I would love to see how it works for you since you are international. Good to hear from you, Coach!

  3. Great post, Adam. In Alberta schools, I see some of what you speak of, but I think to a lesser degree. Where I do see it ALL the time, is in hockey (not a school sport). Parents have kids at 7 years old playing hockey YEAR ROUND. We refuse to let our kids do that and yes, they are “behind” those that do in terms of skill development. I do not understand that thinking, yet it is quite prevalent here.

    • Thanks, Marci for replying. Yes, I grew up in Michigan and I noticed it with hockey too. Kids started putting skates on at 3/4 and were playing year round by 7. My parents wouldn’t pay the money for hockey or let me commit to the amount of time needed to play like that.

      I think we are starting to see more and more the sport specialization here in Oregon (which breaks my heart) and even worse, specialization of position. I hear so many kids refer to a certain position as “my spot.”

  4. Hey Adam, great article! I am a blogger focused on the development of youth soccer in America, I found the points you made to hit the nail right on the head. In a study done by ESPN, they found that the #1 reason for youth’s to quit playing organized sports is due to the fact they are not having fun. A second study done by the Australian Commission of Sport found that >60% of kid’s dropped out of youth sports at the age of 13, because of their parents being too overbearing on their growth. You can look at these two studies and conclude that your mantra discussed above on the negative impacts of cultivating a “winning” culture in school sports is eerily too accurate.

    Forcing kid’s to play an organized sport (especially the same one) should be frowned upon. At the end of the day, not every child is playing youth sports to garnish a career as a professional athlete. For many it is a social setting meant for making friends, for some it is a way to stay active, and for the small percentage of kids it is a key to getting into college. The pressure that parents put on their kids to “succeed” coupled with the coaches and youth organizations “win first” attitude make hard for any child to stay motivated.

    Thanks for your article! Keep it up.


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