Junior sport remains incredibly popular.
According to a 2016 government-commissioned report, nearly 3.2 million children under 14 participate in organised sport or physical activity outside school hours.
That is 69 per cent of kids – more than two-thirds of the junior population!
And while many winter sport competitions have recently wrapped up, junior seasons for cricket, tennis, basketball, baseball, athletics and many others have already begun or about to start.
The problem with junior sport is that many clubs and competitions insist on using a no-score policy.
This is designed to ‘keep the focus on fun’ – but it is completely absurd.
And there are several reasons that enforcement of this policy is actually detrimental to healthy psychological development.
Let me explain why.
Kids can count
A few weeks ago, my six-year-old nephew returned from his soccer game, and when I asked him if he had fun, he nodded his head eagerly.
When I asked him if his team won or lost, he said: “Oh, we don’t keep score. But my team scored more goals than the other team.”
He’s not an idiot.
He doesn’t need a scoreboard at the ground to know who scored more goals.
He’s seen sport before and he understands how it works.
He’s also seen the football team he idolises lose (more times than he’d prefer), and he sees that they get around each other, lift each other up, and go back out to play week after week.
Losing is a critical part of the sporting experience.
And whether you officially keep track or not, kids always know the score.
Kids don’t care
The major argument for the no-score policy is that it means the focus is on the process of learning, having fun, and encouraging participation, rather than on the outcome.
That would be a fair argument if there was any evidence to suggest the focus actually was on the outcome.
In a 2008 study of baseball and softball athletes aged 8-11 years old, they revealed that participation and having fun were most important to their experiences of playing sport, whereas winning was identified as being of relatively little importance.
The bottom line – kids don’t care whether they win or lose. They play to have fun.
Parents are the problem
It is the parents of young athletes who over-emphasise winning, and this is reported by coaches as one of the most problematic parental behaviours.
Effectively, enforcing a no-score policy is an attempt to reduce distress of the parent, but it comes at the cost of their child’s healthy psychological development.
Think controlled crying.
Kids need to learn to lose
The no-score policy doesn’t encourage children to focus on having fun. They do that anyway.
Instead, it promotes a fear that losing is something so dreadful that they need to be protected from it.
By denying them the opportunity to lose, we deprive them of a fundamental opportunity to develop strategies to cope with loss.We raise a generation of young people who lack resilience, and then we wonder why they seem so entitled and disrespectful. We need to teach them to lose.
We are failing our young people
This culture of no scoring in junior sport follows the culture in schools nowadays of rewarding effort rather than achievement.
Noble as it may sound, the research has shown that this approach simply erodes motivation, and specifically discourages those individuals who are actually most talented.
Why can’t we simultaneously reward both effort and achievement? In fact, we already do it.
You only have to look at the way footy scores are reported to see that the efforts of the best players of both the winning and losing team are acknowledged, alongside the final scores.
You can lose, and still have your effort appreciated.
The safety of sport
One of the most beautiful things about sport is that it allows us a playing field to experience all sorts of emotions, while feeling psychologically safe and secure.
Through sport, we learn to feel excited, victorious, confident, and perhaps most importantly, connected.
We also feel nervous, self-doubt, anger, sadness, guilt, frustration. And we get to feel loss.
What better place to be exposed to a wide range of emotions than that which the sporting field provides.
It is our job as coaches, parents, volunteers, and staff, to cultivate an environment where our children feel safe and connected, and know that they are loved and valued as individuals regardless of whether they win or lose.
I urge you, your sports clubs, and your schools: Get rid of the participation ribbons and bring back the scoreboard.
Let them lose. By doing so, you’re actually teaching them how to win.
Dr Melissa Weinberg is a psychologist and research consultant, specialising in sport and performance psychology. You can view her TEDx talk here