I read an interesting article by Barry Rubin the other day:
My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.
He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.
Or am I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive, rather than thinking they merely need choose between becoming a government bureaucrat or dependent.
When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment. I’ve never coached a sport before, and am certainly no expert at soccer despite my son’s efforts. Still, I thought the next game could be won by simply placing players in the positions they merited, and motivating them to triumph.
They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, that everyone should be treated equal as if there were no difference in talents, and that the results didn’t matter.
I really wonder how Mr. Rubin’s column would have turned out if his team had lost. If his team had tried to win, played their better players more, and yet still lost, maybe because they made more mistakes, or because the other team was flat-out better.
I’m not disagreeing with Mr. Rubin’s central point. This no winners/no losers thing is silly, and is doing a disservice to those youngsters. But at the same time, I think that stopping at "winning matters" was the easy, facile point. In a lot of ways, losing matters more. How to lose gracefully, how to deal with the sting of losing even though you did your best, how to draw lessons from your loss so you improve. Those are the really important lessons of childhood games, and those are much harder to teach than the simple "winning matters".
In some ways, I think the unspoken reason behind the whole no winners/no losers idea is to avoid those lessons about loss, rather than any real animosity towards the idea of winning. We fear the the concept of losing so much that we denigrate the concept of winning. After all, if there are no winners, then there are no losers.