Blaming the Coach, Ignoring the Context

March 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a Times op-ed today about kids and sports. “Your Kids’ Coach Is Probably Doing It Wrong,” by Jennifer Eitner (here).

Usually, these hand-wringing articles point their finger at parents. This time, it’s the coaches. Either way, this approach makes the mistake of focusing on individuals and ignoring the larger social context. For me, it was sort of a flashback to the early months of this blog, when I wrote about the same problem.

Seventy percent of kids drop out of youth sports by the time they are thirteen. And  according to Etnier, one of the most important reasons is the kind of coaching they get. “Coaches are doing it wrong.”

The problem of course is that “These inexperienced coaches often focus on winning rather than learning and development.”  A 1993 survey found that “a lack of fun, negative coach behaviors and an overemphasis on winning were among the top reasons children drop out of sports. [emphasis added]”

That may be true, but when a behavior is so widespread, maybe we should look for explanations outside of the individuals, in the structures —  the rules of the game —  that shape the situations that coaches and kids find themselves in. And if we are trying to change that behavior, if we want to keep kids from quitting sports, we’ll have more success by changing those external structures than by exhorting the individuals to think and act differently.

One of the great insights of sociology is that thinking and doing are not purely  individual matters. Thoughts — thoughts like the emphasis on winning — aren’t just inside people’s heads. They are also part of the situation. How that situation is structured makes a big difference in how the coaches and kids think and act. That structure, the one that Eitner is worried about, is organized sports. In unorganized sports — pick-up games at the playground — there are no coaches. Also no practices, no uniforms identifying permanent teams, no won-lost records or individual statistics, no traveling teams, no playoffs, no trophies. Given that structure, it’s hard to overemphasize winning since the final score of the game ceases to exist once the game is over.

Yes, coaches may stress winning above anything else, but it’s not because all these coaches are single-minded competition-freaks. It’s because the whole system pushes them to think that way. As I said thirteen years ago (here* and here), the way we organize something carries its own logic, and that logic often overwhelms our best personal intentions.

I’m reminded of a line from the British movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” based on the Jeanette Winterson novel. The protagonist, a young schoolgirl, has just done badly in some school competition (not sports), and a grown-up tries to console her: “Winning isn’t the important thing.”

“Then why is that what they give the prizes for?” asks the girl.

You may want the kids to have fun. You may tell them that the whole point of the game is to have fun.  But if you structure kids’ play as a formal competition, with teams and leagues and won-lost records, the message is clear: it’s all about winning. It’s as though parents had organized a military marching band for their musically inclined children, with uniforms and practices and every note written out, and then wondered why their kids weren’t jamming on the blues.


* Here is a long excerpt from that post. It’s a good example of how external contexts make some ideas unthinkable.

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 these intelligent and very well educated 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.