Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Keep Score? The Psychology of Winning

Its amazing what you learn at the ball field, especially when the players you are watching are 8. Passing ambulances call for an unstated time out for rubbernecking. Outs are more exciting than runs, and for good reason: there are fewer of them. And of course there is the concern by some parents that their children are going to be traumatized for life if they strike out, or lose a game. I have even heard of some leagues that do not keep score, in order to keep the children focused on the important part of the game, which is having fun. These people miss the fundamental point and purpose of sports, and in doing so they strip it of its value.

Think of the lessons you want children to learn from playing sports: teamwork, strategy, adapting to difficulties, dealing with failure, dealing with success, sacrificing individual glory for team success, hard work, discipline, and the value of practice.

Now look what happens to these lessons when score is removed. With no score there can be no winning and losing, which means no success. No learning how to lose with pride, or to win with class. What difficulties are there to adapt to if there is no losing? How can one sacrifice for team success when there is no success?

If you are expecting a Lombardi-esque speech about the importance of winning, you are going to be disappointed. The point of games is not the winning or losing. It is the journey, not the destination, that matters. Just like much of the benefit reaped from the moon landing was in what we learned/invented on the way (Velcro, microwaves, etc.), rather than what we got once we were there, the benefit in sports comes from one learns and goes through in the attempt to win.

In a way, sports competition prepares us, in a fairly risk-free environment with artificial goals, for those conflicts in real life with life and death goals. A scoreboard is just a measuring stick of how the children are doing. So they get upset if they do poorly. So what? That will teach them to learn the above lessons better, and after all, it really is just a game. Better to have a child learn the lessons of teamwork in a sport where the only harm is a bruised ego, than to learn it later in life in an emergency like a fire where lives are at stake.

Think about war games, everything from chess to computer simulations. They are exercises to improve performance. Without scores, and the agenda to achieve good ones, the exercise would fail to have value. And of course, the real potential for damage is removed so the soldiers using them don’t die learning lessons that would result in death on the real battlefield. Likewise with sports. Children learn lessons with little cost. They only learn the lessons with a game, and you only have a game with a score. With a score you have soccer. Without it, you just have people kicking a ball around.

To take another example, I once had the host of a friendly neighborhood poker game inquire as to the seriousness of my play. He could not understand why I would care if I won or lost in a penny ante game where one’s winnings on a good night would be less than anyone’s hourly wage at the table. I told him that attempting to win was the whole point, whether we are playing for $1,000 or matchsticks. There is where the challenges in strategy and psychology rise. Without that, we are merely sitting around a table taking turns winning little lotteries.

So let your kids play sports, and have them play, within the rules, and with good sportsmanship, to win. No child ever died of grief from taking a beating at a sport. Losing, failing to get what one desires, even sometimes after a ton of hard work and sacrifice, is a part of life. Best they learn that lesson while they are young, where they have little to lose. Let them learn, as this cocky 11 year old did, that no matter how good you are at a game, your team can still get beaten 77-0 if your teammates are not up to snuff. We can’t expect them to handle meaningful successes and failures as adults if they can’t handle meaningless successes and failures of childhood games.

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