Organizing the Fun out of Play

March 21, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Parents, with the best of intentions, organize sports teams and leagues for kids, and then are dismayed that the kids are stressed by the pressure of winning. “Have fun,” parents tell the kids. “Enjoy playing the game. That’s more important than winning.”

But structures speak more loudly than words, and if you structure kids’ play as a formal competition, with teams and leagues and won-lost records, the message is clear: it’s about winning. It’s as though parents had organized a military marching band for their musically inclined children and then wondered why kids weren’t jamming on the blues.

That was the gist of my previous post. But there’s something else contradictory about organized sports for kids. The whole idea — at least the officially stated idea — is to provide more opportunity for kids to play. But the result can turn out to be less opportunity, less play.

In the suburb where I grew up, there was a nice field where kids often played pick-up baseball. Maybe kids would arrange beforehand to meet there. But often, you’d just go up to the field, and if there was a game, you’d get in. But then the grown-ups who ran Little League, probably in some arrangement with the town government, converted this space into an official Little League field. They sodded the outfield and smoothed down the infield, and when it was done, it was beautiful. A perfectly shaped dirt infield without a pebble, surrounded by neatly trimmed grass, the whole thing surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The only trouble was that the field now became forbidden territory for everything except Little League games. The wise adults who ran the show didn’t want this beautiful field that they had created worn down by kids who just wanted to play there. So now, the field provided less play time than it had before it was taken over by Little League. The goal of having this wonderful official field for the organized games won out over the original goal of providing more opportunity for kids to play.

I saw something similar last September. I happened to be in a park where a girls’ soccer match was just getting started. The girls looked to be about six or seven years old, incredibly cute, one team in shiny pink shirts, the other in blue. It was a scene you could easily imagine parents taking pictures of. But as it turned out, it wasn’t much of a match. The blue team had a couple of really good players, and the game was never close. The pink team would put the ball in play, but after a few seconds the blue team would get it, and one of the good players would take the ball downfield and kick a goal. After a few such scores, the girls in pink were becoming demoralized, and even the girls in blue didn’t seem very excited or happy. The coach of the blue team even benched one of the good players to try to even things up. It didn’t help. Mercifully, six-year-olds don’t play long matches, and the whole dismal thing was over in twenty minutes or so.

What was wrong with this picture? For the purpose of making it easier for girls to play soccer, parents had organized a league with teams and uniforms and scheduled matches. But today, it wasn’t working very well. How might they have had a good match? In other circumstances, the solution would be so obvious that even six-year-olds could think of it: have one or two of the good Blue players switch sides with some of the weaker Pink players. But I doubt that this thought occurred to any of the parents. Even if some of the soccer moms or dads had thought of it, what could they have done? The uniforms, the necessity of keeping won-lost records, and everything else based on the idea of permanent teams in an organized league make that solution all but impossible.

Instead, the coach made her best player stop playing, and for all I know the adults ended the match early rather than let the score get even more lopsided. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but I wonder if anyone thought, “Hey, the whole idea of this league was to get the girls to play soccer? How can our solution be to have one of them, or all of them, play less or not at all?”

The way we organize something carries its own logic, and that logic that often overwhelms our best personal intentions.


maxliving said...

For me, the main drag of my organized soccer experience was the weather and the fact that our field seemed to be made more of water than ground. I think an unorganized group of 6 year-olds would have been smart enough to stay home, play Nintendo, and go out when the weather commands it, not the schedule.

trrish said...

Yes, I like the "not-too-competitive" approach.

My son (8) plays in a community league that:

a) does not keep score (officially)
b) balances the teams out by doing a skills assessment in the beginning of each season. The teams are set up to be pretty balanced, and generally they are.
c) does not have prizes or championships

It really is about giving the kids a chance to play, and it is a supportive environment. Every once in a while there is a freaky mom or dad who is overzealous. I usually just move my chair downfield from them.

I've really enjoyed participating in the league. If he keeps going on to play soccer as he gets older, I know things will change. Even though no one officially keeps score, the team still feels happy to win a game. Most of the time, the scores are really close, so it is a pretty even match and everyone can see it, including the players.

Of course, we don't have the rain problems out here! It's against the law for it to rain on a Saturday morning in Colorado. :-)