Should We Teach Kids to Play to Win?

Political scientist Barry Rubin has an interesting column criticizing the modern tendency to teach kids that playing to win is bad:

My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions.

He never criticizes a player or suggests how a player could do better. My son, bless him, once remarked to me: “How are you going to play better if nobody tells you what you’re doing wrong?” The coach just tells them how well they are playing. Even after an 8-0 defeat, he told them they’d played a great game.

And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place…..

[A]m I right in thinking that sports should prepare children for life, competition, the desire to win, and an understanding that not every individual has the same level of skills? A central element in that world is rewarding those who do better, which also offers an incentive for them and others to strive….

The playing field was perfectly even, but the boys were clearly miserable. They felt like losers, their behavior rejecting the claim that everything was just great, or that mediocrity was satisfactory as long as everyone was treated identically. They knew better than to think outcomes don’t matter….

When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment…..

For the starting line-up, I put the best players in and kept them in as long as they didn’t say they were tired or seem fatigued…..

I didn’t put terrible players in at forward or in the goal. It didn’t take any genius to do so, just basic sports common sense….

Before the game, I gave them a pep talk, with the key theme as follows:

Every week you’ve been told that the important thing is just to have a good time. Well, this week it’s going to be different. The number one goal is to win; the number two goal is to have a good time. But I assure you: if you win, you will have a much better time!

And that’s just what happened. They took a 1-0 lead and held it, in contrast to the previous week when it was scoreless at the half but turned into a 3-0 humiliation when someone ill-suited was made goalkeeper just because he wanted that job….

I worried that the boys who played less of the game and were given seemingly less significant positions would be resentful. But quite the opposite proved true….

They played harder, with a bit more pressure and a less equal share of personal glory than they’d ever done before. But after the victory, they were glowing and appreciative, amazed that they had actually won a game. Yes, winning and being allowed to give their best effort as a team was far more exciting and rewarding for them than being told they had done wonderfully by just showing up, …. and that the results didn’t matter.

I agree with Rubin here. Playing to win encourages better performance. People, including children, are unlikely to make a real effort if they are told that results don’t matter. Moreover, the incentive of victory helps overcome one of the biggest obstacles to effective teaching of children: the fact that they tend to have very short time-horizons and can’t easily be motivated by benefits that lie far in the future. Few kids will work hard at soccer because doing so will make them more physically fit ten years later (or even ten months later). But many more will do so in the hope of experiencing the thrill of victory. As I wrote in a 2006 post on research on student incentives:

[C]hildren and teenagers have notoriously short time horizons and many are unwilling to work hard today for rewards that they can’t enjoy until many years later. [Harvard economist Roland] Fryer’s financial incentives [for inner city children to do better in school] represent one possible way to give students more immediate rewards for studying hard. As he points out, middle and upper class parents have often used such rewards for studying for their own children….

Like Fryer, … I was a terrible student for much of my school career. Although I knew that good grades were important for getting into college, this was too distant a reward to motivate me very much. What turned my situation around was high school debate. If I worked hard on a debate topic for 2 or 3 weeks, I could win a prize at a tournament at the end of that time…. Although tournament trophies (like Fryer’s $10 cash prizes) are trivial in value compared to the long-term benefits of education, they were an immediate reward that provided quick gratification to my teenage mind. Over time, learning to work hard on debate issues also led me to study harder in other classes.

Long-term goals such as college did play some role in my eventual academic turnaround. But the short-term incentives of debate had a much more powerful immediate effect. And like Rubin’s soccer players, I also found that winning after making a real effort is a lot more fun than losing after just showing up.

Everything has reasonable limits. We should not encourage elementary school soccer players to be as hypercompetitive as Michael Jordan or Vince Lombardi. There may also be gender differences here. Some research suggests that competitive incentives are on average less effective with girls than boys (which is not to say, of course, that they aren’t effective at all). Nonetheless, Barry Rubin’s approach strikes me as much more sensible than that of his son’s coach and others with similar attitudes. Contra Lombardi, winning isn’t the only thing that matters. But it’s foolish to pretend that it doesn’t matter at all.