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Losing beach volleyball

Competition: Why we should let kids lose

‘It’s not a big deal’

‘How’s Ryan doing?’ I’m chatting with my friend over hot chocolates in a cosy Melbourne café. Ryan is her son. He’s 8 – my favourite age for kids. They are past the diaper, tantrum and egocentric stages. And not yet into the teenage attitude and boredom with everything stage.

‘He’s doing great at school, and he’s playing soccer this season.’

‘How’s his team doing?’

‘Oh they don’t keep score at that age.’ My friend delivers it with nonchalance, like it’s common knowledge.

‘What?!’ I splutter on my drink.

‘They just want kids to focus on having fun. And losing hurts their self esteem.’ I sat in stunned silence.

‘It’s no big deal.’ She moves the conversation along. ‘So, what movie did you want to watch later?’

To me, not scoring is a very big deal. As an athlete, scoring – and winning and losing – are an integral part of the game. And a valuable part, even for kids. Perhaps especially for kids.

Post coffee catch-up, a little more research showed me that doing away with scoring is becoming a common trend across a number of sports, both in schools and in sports leagues. Thousands of kids up to age 12 are playing sports where goals, baskets, points and scores are not tallied.

My first lessons in scoring

At 8 years old, the same age as Ryan, I competed in my first National Trampoline Championships. Only 5 athletes qualified for the under 11 age group. I was the youngest, and a newly minted state champion.

My parents were so proud to be there. I remember my dad fiddling to set up the video camera to capture my routines. He promised me a giant chocolate freddo frog for after I competed. My mum’s hands were shaking so much she couldn’t drink her coffee. The venue, like many other sporting halls around the world was cold, drafty and needed a good coat of paint. It was filled with hundreds of athletes and coaches in the standard sporting tracksuits, each one differentiated only by their state colours.

My coach led me over to the trampoline to compete. She squatted down to my eye level.

‘Remember to point your toes. And present to the judges before you start,’ she spoke last minute advice. ‘Good luck.’

I jumped and flipped and pointed my toes with every bit of effort I had. Routines I had practiced hundreds of times in training. Even at that age I knew what it meant to work hard – gymnastics teaches you that.

And I came last.

Dead last.

I sobbed in my dad’s arms for a long time after they announced the results. Even chocolate couldn’t cheer me up – I didn’t feel like I deserved it. It’s a painful memory, and one I never would have experienced if they didn’t keep score.

But it’s also a memory that led to other memories. The next year I worked even harder. I begged my coach to teach me new, scary skills. And, fuelled by the feeling of that loss, the next year, I stood on top of the podium. When my dad handed over the giant chocolate freddo, I took it with pride.

I went on to win the National Championships for another 12 years in a row.

So to me, losing is just as important as winning. And taking the opportunity to experience either of these away from kids is something we shouldn’t do.

10 more reasons to keep score:

1. Scoring prepares us for the world

We give grades in school, we rank people in performance reviews, we promote only selected people, we compete for sales and jobs and contracts. Most of what we do in life has a competitive aspect and we need to prepare kids for it.

2. Scoring teaches us the sport

Without a score, the game is just a sequence of events. There are no consequences, and thus no way of judging whether your actions as a player were good or bad. The way many games are played can also change with the score line and the clock – intensity changes, whether you are focusing on offence or defence, and even configurations (think ice hockey where you might take the goalie off the ice to add another offensive skater in a last ditch attempt for a goal). Without a score, kids don’t properly learn all of these elements of a sport.

3. Scoring helps organise the league

From a purely practical standpoint, ranking teams based on their performance helps league organisers create a fixture that is fair and competitive. Scoring teams allows the creation of different divisions so that kids consistently get to play teams similar to their ability levels – rather than smashing, or being smashed, by an opponent of vastly different skill levels.

4. Scoring (plus good parenting / coaching) teaches humility

Sport is the perfect place to teach kids how to win with humility, and lose with grace. My parents and coaches drummed into me that no matter how disappointed I was I always had to congratulate the winner. And if I happened to be the winner, then I had to graciously acknowledge what my opponents did well. Sport is the arena in which kids feel some of their strongest emotions, so if you can learn to display humility on the field, it will carry over to the classroom, the workplace and relationships. Part of the argument for abolishing scoring is that we don’t like to see unsportsmanlike behaviours on the field. I’d argue that this is exactly where we need to be teaching sportsmanlike behaviour – our kids can’t get through life without it.

5. Scoring shows that effort = results

A team that does poorly one season, trains hard in the off season, and then wins next year learns that effort = results. An individual that spends most of the game on the bench, does extra training at home with mum or dad, and then finishes the season as a starter for the team learns the same thing. We are teaching kids a growth mind-set and a way to approach skill development in all areas of life. Without the score, there is no way to measure the outcome of your efforts so you can’t learn this fundamental equation.

 6. Scoring helps identify strengths

As much as effort always leads to improvement, each individual still has natural talents – areas where their effort will lead to disproportionate results. My brother was a natural at swimming, I was not. In contrast, he was a mess of arms, legs and incoordination on the trampoline. Having a way to measure performance in each sport – with a score – helped us both identify at an early age which sports we wanted to play. Like school grades, which help indicate whether someone should study math, literature, or science later in life, scores help steer kids towards their strengths by identifying what they are good at. It doesn’t even have to be a specific sport like swimming or trampolining, it could also be a role within a team (are they a leader, a supporter, or a go-to player under pressure).

7. Scoring teaches how to manage pressure

A sporting competition by definition has a time limit. Thus, it is the perfect place to teach kids in a controlled way how to handle pressure. For the duration of the game, the pressure is on. We ask our kids to step up and perform their best against the pressure of the other team. It can be intense, which mimics real life scenarios. But when the game is over it’s back to being a kid, having fun, and begging mum for ice-cream. School is far less ideal teacher because the outcome (grade) is delayed from the activity (studying all semester), which means the pressure is on for months at a time, not just an hour on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

8. Scoring highlights risks versus rewards

Athletes face decisions around risk every day. Should you go for the low probability 3 pointer or pass the ball as the clock ticks down? Should you try the harder routine with more chance of a fall because it the higher difficulty score could get you a win? The ability to make these decisions under pressure, to effectively weigh up risk and reward, is a skill needed in professional life. Not scoring means that kids don’t see the outcomes of the risks they take, and thus don’t learn how to make balanced decisions.

9. Scoring builds stronger team bonds

One of the core ways we build close relationships is to share emotional (good or bad) experiences. Sport, with the shared struggles, highs of winnings, and lows of losing, can lead to some of the strongest friendships in a kid’s life. Without the score, the emotions, and thus the bonds between players, are not as strong.

10. Scoring creates more motivation

Deep down, it’s human nature to be competitive. We aren’t competing for food or the most comfortable place to sleep on the cave floor anymore, but the drive to compare ourselves to others is still very much present. Sport is a healthy outlet for this drive. For the duration of a game we can unite against a common enemy, compete for victory, and enjoy the recognition that comes with success. Our kids will play with more energy, enthusiasm and motivation if we keep score and tap into that natural competitive drive.

Kids know best

Scoring, winning and losing. They are part of life, and we need to teach kids how to navigate life. Sport is the perfect platform to do it. It’s time bound, it comes with high emotions, and we work in teams. If kids can learn humility, that effort leads to results, how to manage pressure, how to balance risk and reward, and how to bond with team mates on the sporting field, then they will have these skills with them for life.

Ultimately, if we can teach our kids to play in a way so that when they finish a game ‘you really can’t tell whether he won or lost, when he carries himself with pride either way’ then we will have succeeded.

Interestingly, I asked Ryan directly how his soccer game went. He gave me a smile and pumped his fist in the air.

‘It was great,’ he said. ‘We won, 5 goals to 2! And I scored 2 goals – more than last week.’ Even if the adults pretend not to keep score, the kids know if their team was the best. And Ryan knew that he did his best.

Keep on keeping score.

July 13, 2019