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Oct 28

The Perpetuation of the “Winning Myth” in Sports

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We have been told often enough and even seen young participants being encouraged to believe that winning and success is inseparable: “those who lose are losers and those who win are winners. AND… who wants to associate with a loser?” Another common catch phrase is: “Nice guys finish last.” Such beliefs are frequently substantiated with the so-called social ‘myths of winning’ whereby coaches post famous slogans in the locker rooms: “Winning is everything – losing is death” (San Jose sport psychologist Tom Tutko, 1974, ‘in sports winning really isn’t everything’). The media attributes this often-repeated statement to the late football coach Vince Lombardi, although he has been misquoted because he really said: “The pursuit of winning is everything.”

I have attended competitive swim meets where 7 and 8-year-old swimmers were in tears because they did not fare well and the coach and then the parents reprimanded the child (with abusive language). They are obviously trying to live vicariously through the child’s success. “Playing to extremes,” part of the Investigative Reports Series (March 2000) by the USA Arts & Entertainment Channel, gave a disturbing insight to the issues in children and youth sports. Up to 40 million children in the USA and 12 million in Canada participate in organized sport, according to the report. Some children are said to spend as much as 30 hours a week or more in practice. Has anybody ever suggested that this would have been referred to as child labor in the past? What ever happened to the notion of “free play-time?”

Sport psychologist Rick Wolff states in the report that….
“Competition has become pressure. The New World of youth sports is a world where school homework is done in the backseat of a car on the way to and from practice, where trophies line bookshelves, and parents shell out thousands of dollars to support their children’s career in sports” …
According to the report and the Michigan based National Alliance for Youth Sports Institute “something is seriously wrong with youth sports but we don’t seem to get it, despite all the statistics.” The ‘win at all cost attitudes’ of coaches and parents, the injury proneness of young athletes, the burn out syndrome of young athletes and the high drop out rate (estimated as 7 of 10 children by age 13) portray a disturbing environment. It has become a scenario where ‘sadness rather than joy in sports’ seems to prevail more and more. The reality of all these athletes’ hopes and dreams is that only 1% is said to achieve athletic scholarship status, according to the report.

The following statements are examples cited in the report:

  • “We are not here to have fun rather to win (coach/parent).
  • “Every loss is a step in the wrong direction” (athlete being recruited).
  • “End all and be all is winning” (athlete’s mother).
  • “Have to train all year round to keep up the competitive edge”(athlete/parent).
  • “I have no life – my daughter plays basketball (mother wears a shirt with the slogan. The daughter plays High school and club ball to get a scholarship).
  • “They’re pursuing me like a pack of wolves. I can’t choose. The school is pushing us” (athlete in Junior High school being scouted).
  • “I gave her my life! I am the only one who is interested in her. I have invested my life in her success” (mother).
  • “Why can’ I do what I want to do?” They (parents) already picked a scholarship school for me (12-year old athlete).
  • “The love of the game is being overshadowed by other psychological pressures” (Professional women’s basketball player Rebecca Lobo).

‘Win at all cost’ Attitude versus Achievement Orientation
Pursuit of Personal Growth through Education in Sports

Coaches, who are strong role models use their leadership skills and established value systems as the ‘art of communication’ in the coach-athlete relationship. They tend to teach, lead and manage foremost with the needs of athletes in mind. On the other hand coaches known as ‘control freaks’ operate with the ‘win at all cost attitude’ to boost their ego and career aspirations at the expense of children’s emotional and psychological development. This type of outlook tends to create a sports environment where all participants (coaches and athletes) start to display a somewhat ‘warped’ attitude toward competition. We all have read, heard or experienced the coach or team who ‘came to kill’ the opposition, the ones who enjoy ‘running up the score’ in order to humiliate the other team. Such sport behavior reflects not only the philosophy of a given program, but also the value system and attitude held by coaches, athletes, parents and administrators. One may argue that even the team name could be an indication; for example “Thrashers,” “Hitmen,” “Stingers,” etc. … are subtle pressures to feel that one has to ‘live up to the team name.’

Humility is supposed to be part of the athletic contest whether in a winning or losing cause. The ancient Greeks followed the code of ‘pursuit of excellence’ (areté), which not only pertained to their athletic endeavors but also to their lives, namely to be ‘noble’ citizens. The aim was to strive toward virtue and honor, to become a hero and be ‘god-like’ on and off the athletic field (compare that to recent scandals in professional sport!) The Greek athlete pursues life and athletics to “become the best and remain the best among all others” (Greek poet Homer). Of course that was true until the Games themselves became totally corrupted and athletes became greedy and notorious for “gluttony, their surfeited sleep, and brutish stupidity as well as well as being bent in stupor” (Greek philosopher Pindar).

Modern sport has become an ever-increasing popular entertainment scene and many elite sports seem to be heading toward such direction. The Olympic creed of “Altius, Citius, Fortius” is slowly becoming ‘misguided’ at the expense of another Olympic ideal, the “spiritual athlete.” Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the 1896 Modern Olympic Games, was a fervent proponent of the “athletae religionae” (spiritual athlete) and the pursuit of education through sports to foster personal growth and achievements. De Coubertin outlined in his writings a philosophy of sport as one which…

  • “Promotes the development of those physical and moral qualities, which are the basis of sport”…
  • “Educates young people through sport in a spirit of better understanding between each other, and of friendship, hereby helping to build a better and more peaceful world”…
  • “Where Sports meets a deeply rooted human need to experience the fellowship of reconciliation”…
  • “Where the emphasis in sport ids that …sportsmen learn to respect each other”… (Coubertin, 1894, in his ‘la pedagogie sportive’)

If we were to affirm Coubertin’s philosophical beliefs then the role of the modern coach is indeed immense, multi-dimensional, elaborate and complex. The philosophical question then arises: “Do we see our role as one of Education (‘la pedagogie sportive’) versus one of Training? May we insinuate here that “horses get trained – people need to get educated?” We have to ponder the impact on young participants and the value we attribute to the life and welfare of a of a child.” What responsibilities are we shirking off by choosing one philosophy over the other?”

The Education versus Training Model

Of course, we constantly refer to the development of athletes as ‘training.’ There is a difference however between using ‘training’ as a point of reference and ’training’ as a process and model. There are two types of models: the ‘Educational’ and the ‘Training’ model. In the former, the coach is foremost a teacher and educator, and the process is holistic. “I just don’t have enough time to do all that” (educating athletes) is a common explanation for coaches in the ‘Training’ model. This model however is an acceptable way of coaching whereby coaches are mostly concerned with the acquisition of physical and cognitive skills, and results. The model is less complex because the focus is solely on task orientation, speedy task mastery and final outcomes. The model works – at least for many coaches because it is centered on ‘production.’

However, there are potential ‘traps.’ Caches may become “too pushy” or identify with the performance and the success of the athletes or the team. Frequently, parents in this environment do the same (the reason they selected the coach for their child in the first place). These coaches like to take all the credit for the success but never for the losses. That is usually the athlete’s fault because “his/her head was not together” (quote) or “he/she did not try hard enough” (quote) or “let me down” (quote). This so called ‘conditional respect and love’ is based solely on the success of the athlete or the team rather than the value of athlete as individual person.

Coaches in this scenario tend to care less about the ‘way athletes feel or their emotional status because “results are the main measure” and that reaffirms their own status among peers. They tend to refer to athletes as ‘mine’ (like ‘owned property’). Many a times, athletes are persuaded or coerced to compete with injuries for “the good of the team” (quote). These coaches are apt to ‘use’ athletes, ignore them when they are injured, and disregard them when they are no longer useful (sustained injured). Female athletes in this program tend to suffer from eating disorders because coaches find it totally acceptable to point out continually that …it’s time to shed some pounds. Go run a few miles.” Some make remarks like: …“Pig” …Cows don’t jump”, etc. (using other abusive and derogatory language), according to “Little girls in pretty boxes” author and news reporter Ryan (1995).

The ‘Training’ model is said to be more conducive to incidences of unethical conduct. This may take on various forms of cheating, illegal recruiting, unacceptable behavior by coaches, athletes and parents. It may include code violations or simply just ‘running up the score,’ seen as “no wrong doing” (quote) and is usually defended as “just being very competitive – in the spirit of the game or in the image of the team.” In this environment, substance abuse and supplements to enhance athletic performance may become part of the scene because athletes feel pressures or “have to succeed.” Overall, there is a lot of pretense but really a total lack of respect for athletes and their overall well-being.

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