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Competition vs. Participation

September 25, 2013

An op ed article in today’s NYTimes titled “Losing is Good For You” discusses the purported consequences of giving everyone a trophy. In the article, author Ashley Merriman specifically singles out AYSO for scorn, which led me, as a former AYSO coach, to submit the following comment:

AYSO is not about sorting winners and losers. I was an AYSO coach in the late 1980s and support their “everyone plays the same number of minutes” ethos that was in place at that time. The purpose of AYSO soccer was to bring children together to teach them soccer fundamentals and teamwork… not to sort them into “stars” and “bench warmers”. If a child loved and excelled at soccer they could progress to “Lightening Soccer” where they would get better coaching (I only played intramural soccer) and a higher level of competition. AYSO is based on the premise that pre-teens are at widely divergent phases of physical growth. If we give MVP trophies to 8 year olds we are often rewarding the most physically mature child and when we give “most improved” we reward the child who just experienced a growth spurt over the past year. When everyone gets a trophy or ribbon in developmental activities like AYSO soccer, it emphasizes the importance of teamwork, a lesson a child cannot learn shooting the soccer ball in their back yard.

Merriman also makes the following assertion:

It’s accepted that, before punishing children, we must consider their individual levels of cognitive and emotional development. Then we monitor them, changing our approach if there’s a negative outcome.

This may be “accepted” in psychology texts but we clearly don’t practice it in schools where students are effectively punished when they fail to have the “individual level of cognitive development” that matches their age peers. Instead of “changing our approach” or questioning our traditional age-based grade-level system we identify them as failures. As one who taught in an urban middle school and worked in two high schools where children struggled to succeed academically I’ve witnessed the downside to academic competition: by the time a struggling student reaches eighth grade they’ve been told for seven consecutive years that they are failures and, having heard that message repeatedly they drop out of school as soon as they can.

The bottom line: Competition is destructive to children when their “individual levels of cognitive and emotional development” are not taken into account. Losing is only good for you if you have the resilience needed to deal with it.

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