When I was a kid, my parents taught me to avoid those bad four letter words we all have heard. You know the ones I mean, the ones you would first hear in school and then think it was OK to use them at home, until you saw that look on dad's face! My siblings and I learned pretty quickly that some four-letter words were bad, and to be avoided at all times.
In youth sports these days, there is a new four-letter word in the minds of some competitive sports folks. It is F-U-N. The mere thought that sports can be competitive and fun makes some people shudder, but it should not.
One of our readers recently shared a story with me about attending a 10-year-old AYSO youth soccer game in New York City. After watching the players struggle for a while, he asked a parent of one of the participants "how often do you practice?"
The response: "We don't practice. Here we don't play for competition; we just want the kids to have fun."
I find this very sad. Not the fun part, because of course we want our kids to have fun. What is sad is the idea that competition, learning and fun cannot coexist.
Somehow the negative aspects of hyper-competitive sports – the over the top parents and coaches, excessive costs and commitments, and the often stressful environment – have created a counter-culture in sports that has gone too far in the opposite direction that it is not serving the kids either. This is the trophies for everyone crowd, the people who give everyone awards for simply showing up and doing the bare minimum, or do not think kids should keep score (even though they do, but then forget about it as soon as they find out what the post game snack is).
As our reader asked me when sharing this story: "Why do we think that it has to be one or the other? Why do we only associate excellence or competence with the negative aspects of competition? How do we communicate to parents who correctly identify the negative aspects of early competitive play: yelling coaches and parents, short-term goals over long-term development, anxiety and pressure of tournaments, etc, that an environment that does not promote competence ultimately undermines the joy of learning and playing well?"
In other words, why is "fun" a four-letter word in competitive sports? Why is the concept of competition an anathema in recreational sports? Can't competitive sports also be fun, and recreational sports provide a great learning environment?
The answer is a resounding yes.