Has Competition Disappeared From Kids’ Sports?

Caterina wrote a nice little essay about her failed soccer career, and ended with this charming anecdote:

They don’t let little kids compete these days, because it might ruin their self esteem. I see it all the time. A friend of mine at work said her 8 year old son played soccer, and one day he came home from playing and she asked him how many goals he’d scored. “There are no goals,” he said.

I don’t have much exposure to children’s sports. Parents, is this anti-competition streak common these days?


  1. Most experts, including the American Association of Pediatricians, don’t recommend organized sports for kids under 8. They recommend sports, just not organized ones. They feel kids need unstructured play. As well, the cognitive abilities for group play aren’t really in place till about ages 8-10. Even then, the idea is to put the emphasis on play, not competition. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but, for kids that age, the pressures of organized sports can be too much. So the idea is to get the kids playing and experimenting, instead of worrying about performance, yelling coaches or other distractions. Once kids are 8-10, organized competition is introduced. Note that this is entirely different from kids putting together their own team for after school play at the park or empty lot.

    I don’t know how this plays out in Vancouver sports, though.

  2. Interesting. I wonder, historically, when kids have started participating in organized competition?

    I wonder if there’s any correlation for elite athletes between starting age and achievement? I asked Julie, and she said kids who become elite skaters tend to start competing at 6 or 7.

    Obviously there’s a huge difference between recreational sports and becoming an Olympic athlete–the question just occurred to me.

  3. Both our girls play soccer, the five year old’s league doesn’t keep score (because goals are a basically random event at that age). The eight year old’s does. I have come to think it’s more to keep the parents in line than the kids. Kids are used to disappointment from an early age (“Can I have this? No.”, “Can I do this? No.”) but having no scorekeeping keeps the parents from getting too outwardly competitive.

    Andrea is exactly right, though I think the “pressures of organized sports” come from the parents and coaches (who are usually parents themselves) rather than from the kids or the game itself.

  4. “but, for kids that age, the pressures of organized sports can be too much”

    This raises two questions:

    1. What does “can” mean? Is there a percentage, a statistical figure? Or is it just a worry by Pediatricians (who should know little more than nothing about psychology and thus can hardly be called “experts”, btw).

    2. What happens when it gets too much? Do the kids start crying? Do they jump off the nearest bridge?

  5. My 11 year old son belongs to a small hockey league at the local community centre. He goes out of his way to NOT score goals. I put him IN the sport to try to motivate him. Go figure.

    Re score keeping – my neighbor’s kid plays football (he’s eight). Complete with all the crunchy goodness of any other football game, they play to win. (Apparently some teams in this league have competitions to get on the team and kids can be cut. Some of the teams this kid comes up against are kids that look like they’re on steriods.) Another go figure.

  6. The coaches on my son’s soccer and baseball teams in Vancouver have always tried to emphasize fun, but the kids keep score anyway. Little League baseball certainly keeps score, although they have rules in place to make sure that any discrepancy isn’t too big; these change from year to year as the kids get older. The soccer and field hockey scores are forgotten by the end of the weekend. My son is 8, BTW, so I expect he’ll soon be in the realm of soccer games where the final score makes a difference; right now it doesn’t seem to affect him, he enjoys playing the sport so much.

  7. I doubt the pediatricians got together and arbitrarily decided to say competitive sports are a bad idea for kids under 8. If you Google, you’ll find there is a ton of research literature to support the idea. Also, some pediatricians specialize in psychological applications of their field.

    Darren: as for elite sports, the research lit I just looked at says an earlier start does nothing to improve performance later on. (My dad has always told me this about softball players, but apparently there is research behind it.) I do know my 17-y-o cousin is on the Canadian National Diving team and is gearing up for the Olympics while being recruited by NCAA schools — and she only started diving at 13.

  8. I just thought that perhaps they weren’t finding the inside of the net, that there r no goals. Or perhaps it’s a 0-0 draw all the time.

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