get a grip

Can We Please Stop Worrying About Winning In Youth Sports?

Back in my day, team sports were a learning experience.

by Anonymous
Can we please stop benching little kids at sports games?
Emma Chao/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

We are ten minutes into the second half of my kid’s basketball game, and while a handful of kids have sweated through their jerseys, my son is bone-dry and relaxing cross-legged on the bench. He has been in the game for a total of three minutes, broken up into a couple short bursts to give the starters a break. And I’m frustrated. While I understand the competitive nature of sports, I don’t think it justifies wildly disproportionate playing time for a team of kids who are just barely hitting tweenhood.

I get that eventually, after puberty, by the time they hit high school, sports are about records and accomplishments and championships and college scholarships. But really, does it have to start so early? Aren’t youth sports supposed to be about something else? Personally, I think youth sports should be about promoting teamwork, instilling confidence, and teaching the value of exercise. Those feel like more critical objectives at this level. So when I see a kid (mine or otherwise!) riding the bench for long stretches of time, I can’t help but feel like we are doing them a disservice as parents and coaches.

In elementary school, is winning really that important? I know I will get a lot of heat for this, but I’m even talking about teams that you need to try out for — gasp! — and those programs that use a hierarchical system, even at the youth level. I’ve received introductory emails from the coaches about expectations, warning parents that players will not get equal playing time in this kind of competitive environment. But I just don't understand the rationale.

But for many people, I think, winning is extremely important. I think many parents feel accomplished when their kid performs successfully on the court or the field. For them, having their kid on a winning team is more important than risking a loss by playing kids who are not currently as talented. To be honest, I don’t think most parents would admit to that mindset out loud, but based on years of sideline observation, it’s my only sensible conclusion.

Maybe a lot of people will think I’m soft. Lots of parents and coaches will roll their eyes at my complaints. And I understand the counterargument that hierarchy is a part of life, even from an early age. Teachers are giving out grades in the classroom, and soloists are being assigned to the school concerts. I get it — it’s not just sports.

But I do think there is something so specific about youth sports. Parents become overly competitive and reliant on their kids' success for their own happiness and fulfillment. That ego ends up being detrimental to the whole scene.

Many kids will participate in a sport, giving coaches and parents a huge opportunity to teach them important life values. We are interested in trying to teach the benefits of exercise, following directions, and working together as a team. And unfortunately, I think these very important messages become muted when game time comes. All of those life skills get casted aside because we want to win.

So this season, I urge all coaches and parents to think a bit more about the bigger picture rather than just the game. I assure you there will be plenty of years ahead filled with roster cuts, scholarship earnings, and draft picks. But for the tweens whose bodies, brains, and abilities are still developing, let’s chill with the scoreboard obsession and let everyone participate. I think we will all be better for it.