It’s a beautiful Fall day. The air is cool, the wind is warm, the sun shines brightly from the southern sky melting into the crystal blue backdrop of the infinity of daylight space. The only sound heard on the elementary school playground are the crispy leaves pushed gently across the blacktop.
Suddenly, the doors are pushed open and a flood of school children rush to various parts of the playground to claim their favorite swing, best ball, longest jump rope, or most comforting spot to bask in the aroma and song of autumn. The dancing leaves are now trod upon and the once lonely sound of the trickling, clickety-clacking leaves across the blacktop is now drowned out with shouts of delight, satisfying laughter, and enthusiastic howling as children search for their friends crying out a variety of names among the throngs of elementary school boys and girls.
A group of second grade boys convenes on the nearly worn-out patch of grass where they do three times a day, each and every recess. The leader of the group arrives with the football under his arm they are going to use for their game of two-hand-touch. Today, however, the leader of this group of eager boys ready to pose as their favorite football players decides they should play the throw-and-catch game of 500.
The leader finds his followers agreeable, even somewhat indifferent. Most of these boys understand the rules to this game of survival of the fittest. Those who don’t will quickly learn as they get pushed, pulled, and possibly knocked over in an attempt to get to the ball. Some who don’t think they possess the physical prowess or self-confidence will most likely fade out of this group and disappear into the circus that has new become the school’s playground.
The leader of this group of young boys decides who should be the ‘thrower’ in their game of 500. The leader may choose himself as ‘thrower’, but most likely the leader will want to exert his strength and fortitude among his peers by participating with the group of ‘receivers’.
For the most part, this group of boys has associated with each other because they have common interests. All of them like to play. All of them like to compete. All of them, somewhere in the depths of their heart, like an adventure that tests their strength. Some, however are stronger, faster, and more competitive than others. Being stronger and faster than your peers at eight years old is mostly dependent upon your genetics. I am certain there aren’t any eight year old boys in the gym lifting weights with their older brothers or fathers becoming muscle-bound, superior human beings. The competitiveness, however , comes from a different source.
While it is true all boys are programmed to respond to a challenge by the desire to win and gaining the satisfaction of overcoming adversity, the win at all costs ideology comes from nurture rather than nature. It is natural for boys to seek adventure, win the affection of friends (male and female), and ultimately stand on top the snow hill when playing ‘king of the mountain.’ Fathers, older brothers, uncles, youth coaches, and any other older male in a position of influence encourage competition and winning to a degree that can be unhealthy for young boys.
When the leader of the group of second grade boys is among the ‘receivers’ in the game of 500 on the school playground begins tackling and forcibly ripping the ball out of the hands of his peer who caught or recovered the ball something is amiss. Sure, some might argue this is natural selection, nature. But when those children who want to gain points so badly in a game of 500 become physically and emotionally threatening to his peers, competition has gone too far.
Creating an environment where winning and ‘being competitive’ is the ultimate goal, the ultimate sign of success, the ultimate representation of ‘manning-up’ can lead to unhealthy, uncooperative behavior. Sure, when adults who care for children are present and leading them in a positive way, the competition just MIGHT stay at a healthy level. What happens when the adults aren’t present but the drive for competition lingers? The answer lies in the interactions of these young boys on the playground at school.
I hesitate to buy into the notion that my child’s future depends on his involvement in youth sports. Athletics provides a great opportunity to learn and have fun. We must also use athletics to help guide our children in finding the talents God has so blessed them to share with the world.
Being competitive and striving for success are great characteristics. But when kids are driven only by winning at all costs, we miss their true gift, their true spirit, and their freedom to be who God wanted them to be. We must keep competition in balance. We must teach kids to compete the right way, the healthy way. We must model the grace in winning and losing and, most importantly, we must respect others as God’s children, building each other up and not tearing each other down.
As a coach, I have been accused of being too soft and too sensitive. I take that as a compliment actually. Maybe I am just a romantic who is hopeful that unconditional love and reason will govern the relations between human beings. I have always believed that athletics, particularly youth sports, are tremendous arenas to teach kids life lessons beyond winning, one of which is healthy competition.
A bell sounds. The balls are put away, the jump ropes are back in a box, and the swings are empty yet moving as if holding onto the spirit that enjoyed a few minutes of freedom. Once again the leaves are picked up by the warm wind and the circular dances resume as the last few children disappear into the school and the doors close. The sun is a little bit warmer now, the day is glorious. The school day continues and all the children are once again on a level playing field in the classroom, that is, until the next recess begins and the solitude of the playground ends.