The Case for Removing Competition from Youth Sports

The Case for Removing Competition from Youth Sports

Many people have fond memories of playing sports back in school. The smell of the fresh-cut grass, the blow of the coach’s whistle, the slap of a high-five from a teammate. But for many children, these pleasant memories are overshadowed by recollections of intense pressure, anxiety, and the humiliation of defeat. These negative experiences arise from the competitive nature of sports, prompting some students to disengage and miss out on the benefits of athletics. We may be able to make youth sports a better experience for everyone by applying our knowledge of biology and psychology.

Student-athletes driven to excel can experience excessive stress that strains their physical and mental health. Many high school sports teams practice way too much, putting dangerous strain on the body that increases the risk of overexertion, burnout, and serious injuries that may plague the student for years to come. The monopolization of a student’s time leaves less for schoolwork, family and friends, and other activities that enhance well-being.

But the most pernicious problem with competition is the habit of comparing oneself to another. Dividing students into winners and losers can result in psychological turmoil in both groups. Students who lose a game or race may feel like a failure. They may be mistreated or ostracized for contributing to a loss. They may lose confidence in their ability to do other things besides sports.

On the other hand, winners are at risk of developing a superiority complex; they can become overconfident and believe they are better than other people. The pressure to continue winning may also fuel anxiety that persists long after practice ends. Some may subject themselves to questionable diets or supplements in an attempt to enhance performance.

But perhaps the most pernicious problem with competition is the habit of comparing oneself to another, weighing one’s own worth against someone else. Given the bruising that competition brings, we need to blow the whistle on this behavior and examine whether it’s worth it.

Sports are so entrenched within our culture that we neglect to consider why physical contests are captivating. Evolutionary psychologists posit that the allure of competitive sports is a likely outgrowth of our primal need to display dominance. Scholars have argued that sports are “culturally evolved signaling systems that serve a function similar to (biological) courtship rituals in other animals.” Feats of strength are perceived as a status symbol, an indicator of social position and mate value. Strikingly, the tendency to form dominance hierarchies appears to be inborn, having been observed in infants and toddlers as well as nonhuman primates.

Viewed through an evolutionary lens, it could be argued that competition is a relic of our ancient past—an old playbook that doesn’t suit today’s game. We no longer live in a world where physical strength is necessary, and it is certainly not a good indicator of a worthy mate. In addition, we should not ignore studies that have linked competitive behavior to depression and self-harm, particularly when it involves our children.

For most people, that’s enough to put the competitive elements of youth sports in the penalty box. But others feel that a winner is deserving if opponents are equally matched. So, before we throw the competition out of the game for unnecessary roughness, let’s replay this claim in slow-motion.

People have long admired unusual athletic abilities. Professional athletes are paid astronomical salaries, and students are awarded handsome scholarships for their physical prowess. The gifts of elite athletes do not arise from hard work alone; many others work equally hard yet fall short of the big leagues. What typically separates the standouts boils down to an innate gift woven into the fabric of their DNA. Stripping away the veneer of effort, the core of what we are praising is luck in the genetic lottery.

Regarded as the greatest swimmer in history, Michael Phelps is a benefactor of unique genes. Unlike most people, his wingspan is longer than his height of 6 feet and 4 inches, giving him an enormous advantage in crossing the pool. Olympic cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta had a genetic mutation that produces extra red blood cells, boosting his oxygen-carrying capacity. A genetic variation that allows muscles to produce force at a high velocity is commonly found in sprinters and power athletes.

These are extreme examples to illustrate the point, but hundreds of other genetic variants have been linked to superior athletic performance. Moreover, numerous studies suggest that personality traits, including those that produce grit and perseverance, also have a strong genetic component. Surprisingly, studies have also found that athletes have different types of bacteria in their intestines that produce metabolites that enhance performance. In short, while we imagine that student-athletes are on a level playing field, the reality is that they stand in a mountain range of inequity.

There are also many non-genetic factors that influence one’s athletic ability and are beyond the control of the student, such as childhood environment. Children who are better nourished, supported by family, and free of having to worry about money for the best gear, shoes, or training stand a much higher chance of success in sports.

Much of what makes a great athlete, then, boils down to biology and upbringing, things that are beyond an individual’s control. Like someone who won a jackpot with a lottery ticket, people born with above-average talents, and in the right environment, are lucky. We should be honest with students (and ourselves) about the nature of our varying strengths and weaknesses and how this makes competition inherently unfair. These insights can also guide the development of youth sports programs that retain the positive aspects of athletics without the negatives.

While we do not control our genetic makeup or childhood environments, there is room to improve ourselves and value in reaching our potential. The point is not to stop trying to reach new heights but to stop comparing apples and oranges: Students should be taught that their disparate abilities largely stem from factors beyond their control, so it is unproductive to make comparisons between individuals. Rather, students should aim to make their future performance better than today’s performance: That is the only comparison that has merit.

Instead of external comparisons, students can focus on the inner victory of self-improvement. Removal of the competition between individuals or teams—for example, by not keeping score or doling out trophies—preserves the most important benefits of youth sports: Kids have fun, get exercise, and learn to work together as a team. They share in the camaraderie of an activity they all enjoy and encourage one another’s quests for self-improvement. In this framework, there is also no basis to discriminate against transgender athletes, who, despite evidence to the contrary, are often presumed to have an unfair advantage.

Competition between individuals is an example of evolutionary baggage that now serves as a source of unnecessary stress and anxiety. We can become better people by focusing on our inner victories—and helping others achieve theirs. In the process, children can learn the values of inclusion, self-improvement, and support. Beating a competitor is not a win; victory is becoming a better person.

Bill Sullivan, Ph.D., is the author of Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are and a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

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