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On Winning Team, Kids Lose Out on a Fundamental Lesson

“Cindy” is far and away the best player on my 8-year-old daughter Perrie’s basketball team. In the recent semifinal game, she monopolized the ball as usual, dribbling up court and taking the shot on every possession. What was unusual in this game--or at least its first half--was that her shots didn’t go in the basket. This was a frustrating, new experience for her, and when the other team opened up a huge lead, Cindy became exasperated, lost interest in the game and threw a tantrum or two.

Watching this display of poor sportsmanship, I kept wondering why the coach didn’t bench her. The answer, of course, was that he wanted to win. Which was also why the other parents didn’t seem upset that their little daughters could go through an entire game without touching the ball. They too wanted to win, cheering Cindy’s every move and moaning when she missed. One woman I talked to at halftime looked at me as though I were crazy when I suggested that, with this age group, all the girls ought to participate equally; this was, after all, bantam basketball, not the WNBA.

“Cindy’s carrying us to the championship,” she said.

And she was right. In the second half, Cindy did her usual Michael Jordan routine, and the team ended up winning both that game and the championship game that followed.

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Myself, I felt kind of empty, thinking that my daughter and all the other girls on the team had gone through an entire season without improving their skills. But Perrie was elated and could not have been prouder. In her mind, she’d played on a championship team. It didn’t matter that the word “team” had no meaning here. Winning counted for everything.

Trying to figure out how this had happened, I didn’t have to look much beyond the parents, who during the finals would scream in delight at every basket, even though we were leading by an insurmountable margin. The kids, taking their cues from their parents, learned that winning is the bottom line and that mercy is for suckers.

Unfortunately, Cindy’s team isn’t an isolated example of the win-at-any-cost mentality that pervades today’s generation of parents. I’ve seen young soccer players coached to fall down and pretend that they were tripped in order to earn a free kick at the goal. I’ve seen parents taunting opposing players. And I’ve seen angry parents charging onto the field to confront players, coaches and referees.

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My intention isn’t to bemoan unsportsmanslike conduct. No, what concerns me here is the effect that attitudes like these have on children’s desire even to participate in athletics. In his book “Kid Fitness,” Dr. Kenneth Cooper points out that kids who aren’t considered “winners” start to drop out of sports around the age of 10. Whether the sports are individual, like gymnastics and tennis, or team sports like basketball, the kids leave when they feel that their contributions aren’t valuable or appreciated. And they feel that way when all the attention and coaching are focused on the star player or players. Parents need to realize that just as kids mature emotionally at different rates, so too do they mature physically at different rates. While Perrie and her teammates can bask in Cindy’s glory today, by tomorrow they’ll figure out that they can’t improve if they’re not given either the opportunity or guidance. So they’ll quit playing altogether.

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This phenomenon concerns me because so many of our kids are already overweight, if not obese. They don’t need another contributing factor: inactivity. Indeed, a majority of adults in this country are overweight, if not obese. What’s the connection? Studies prove that active, fit adults were likely to have been active, fit children. That makes this an issue of health as much as ethics.

Believe me, I’m far from being anticompetitive. As I’ve argued before, competition often brings the best out of us. But I want the competition to be appropriate to the age. Before the fifth or sixth grade, children can’t process losing in the kind of you-don’t-win-the-silver-you-lose-the-gold environment that we’ve been fostering. Until then, let’s focus on skills, sportsmanship, teamwork and, most of all, fun. Not every child can be Michael Jordan, or even Cindy.

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But every child can be made to feel like a champion.

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Copyright 1999 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith’s fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book “Getting Better All the Time.” Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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