It is a debate that has rumbled on for years – is winning or simply taking part / playing for fun more important for the development of kids in sport, and is the incentive to win necessary?

Why do we say “it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts”?

It was the founder of the Olympics, no less, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.

Of course, the reality these days seems rather different, with most people evidently far more interested in the winners and the medallists, but it is a phrase that remains in wide circulation.

Winning or Enjoyment?

Back in 2013 the coach of a village under-10s football team was sacked for his tyrannical approach to winning. In a rather frank email to parents, the coach had said:

I am only interested in winning. I don’t care about equal play time or any other communist view of sport. Those that are not as good need to work harder or demonstrate more during training, or change sports. You are not doing your son any favours by suggesting the world is fair or non-competitive. Everything they are likely to do in life will be competitive so my view is get them used to it.

Days later the coach was fired, despite his winning record.

That “communist view of sport” is increasingly prevalent in today’s society, with a growing number of schools embracing a “prizes for all” culture in which winners are not recognised. Many parents find this a curious approach but a survey carried out by the MCC and the Chance to Shine charity revealed 64% of 8-16 year olds said they would be “relieved, not bothered or happier” if winning or losing were not a factor.

So what are we to do? There is no argument that kids, in an age of falling levels of activity, need to engage in more sport and physical activity, but with so much of the school curriculum driven by a cut-throat league table and target-driven culture, should children’s sport embrace a similarly competitive environment or should it be seen as a release with a greater emphasis on enjoyment?

Competition and fun are not mutually exclusive

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle – competition and fun are not mutually exclusive. Competitive sport provides some children with an additional incentive and motivation to take part. It can teach them about self-discipline and how to respect others, in victory and in defeat. The other side of the coin is ‘failure’ and learning to live with it and being motivated by it in future. Many psychologists believe a little bit of failure is good for us, and this sort of competitive sport in youngsters can help prepare them for adult life.

In 1999, the first international conference on Sports and Human Rights stated in a section titled Ethics And Moral Behaviour In Sport:

“It is commonly accepted that through sport one learns to persevere, to sacrifice, and to be self-disciplined, to work hard, to follow orders, to be a leader, and to work with others”

Degrees of competition

Some children are, of course, more introverted and much less inclined to want to compete. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should just pull them out at the first sign of apathy. There should be thoughtful management designed to encourage them into gentler degrees of competition. Competition doesn’t necessarily have to be about competing with peers – in certain sports it can be healthy to encourage the idea of competing against yourself, through personal bests or simply asking children to reflect on their performance and compare to previous efforts.

There is no right or wrong answer but competition in junior sport is not unfair or improper. Clearly – exemplified by the case of the over-zealous under 10s coach – the competitive edge can go too far and can foster an unpleasantness that is off-putting to both children and parents alike. That over-the-top competitiveness, certainly from coaches, can manifest in different ways – it can be, for example, the coach picking the same ‘best’ players every week, leaving the less able but equally committed kids kicking their heels on the sidelines. This, in our view, is clearly wrong, and coaches in kids sport should not be prioritising winning over a fun, egalitarian approach to coaching that means roughly equal playing time for all and an emphasis on fun first, winning second.

It is reasonable, though, for winners to be encouraged and rewarded – but sport is nothing if it is not enjoyed. We believe the essence of sport is that while you’re playing it, nothing else matters – but it is neither solely the winning or the taking part that counts. It can be, and is, both.

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