One of the challenges inherent in youth sports is teaching the difference between taking advantages of opportunities to gain a competitive advantage – gamesmanship – and taking illegal and unethical shortcuts in an effort to win – cheating.
In the appropriate competitive environment, there’s nothing wrong with playing to win. However, in youth sports there will almost inevitably be some confusion about the line between using the rules to your advantage and bending or breaking the rules because you can get away with it. Children push boundaries as a means of learning and development, and as coaches and parents it is important to help them understand how to be a tough competitor without resorting to shortcuts and cheating.
Teach the spirit of the game
Some of the confusion between playing to win and winning at any cost is due to the fact we don’t explicitly talk about the difference between the two. When kids start competing they realize winning means a lot to the adults around them. Parents and coaches are happy and excited when the team wins, but less so when the team loses. They learn to value winning, but it’s important to teach kids to value winning for themselves, not merely because it makes those around them happy. Winning means you worked hard and worked well together to accomplished a task. Great athletes develop an intrinsic desire to win, based on the personal value accomplishment provides. Athletes who turn to shortcuts and develop a win-at-any-cost mentality are more often extrinsically motivated; they value the admiration, attention, and external rewards (prizes, money, etc.) that come with winning.
Teaching the spirit of the game can be a good way to help young athletes learn the difference between playing to win and winning at any cost. The spirit of competition is to use sport-specific skills, fitness, and knowledge to be the top-performing athlete and/or team in the competition. To win within the spirit of the game means you and your team outplay, outwork, and outthink the opponent. It doesn’t mean taking advantage of missed calls, exploiting loopholes in the rules, or valuing the end result over the journey to get there.
Here are some ways to encourage gamesmanship while discouraging shortcuts in youth sports:
Focus on Skills: Out-Play Your Opponent
Youth sports is a great place to focus on skill development. Players don’t need to resort to shortcuts when they can outplay opponents based on superior skills. From a coaching and parenting perspective, when young athletes start getting more interested in competition and winning, encourage skill development as a means of gaining a competitive advantage. What additional skills can be learned? How can the players and/or team take their skills to a new level?
Focus on Fitness: Out-Work Your Opponent
Not all athletes are supremely talented in terms of sport-specific skills, and in youth sports differences in physical development can also give certain kids more or less of a skills advantage. Similarly, physical development can give certain kids more or less of an advantage in terms of strength, power, and speed. Developmental advantages aside, all kids can work on developing greater stamina and fitness in order to gain a competitive advantage.
From a coaching and parenting perspective, encourage effort. Can the player or team get back to play defense more quickly? Can they pick up the pace of the game to tire out the opposing team? In what ways can the player or team use speed or endurance to gain a competitive advantage?
Be Willing to Lose In Order to Win the Right Way
On a cultural level, we would do youth sports athletes a great favor by reinforcing the idea that the way you play matters more than the final score. There is value in winning and there is nothing wrong with being competitive. But the best way to win is to outwork and outplay an opponent, and maybe benefit from some lucky breaks. When you win the right way, there shouldn’t be anything you need to hide from the referees. From a coaching and parenting perspective, make it known you value hard work and fair play over wins and losses.