What Does Having No Winners or Losers Teach Kids?

by Scott Thompson

    Some parents believe that competitive sports encourage aggression and can damage self-esteem. Other parents believe that kids who are never exposed to competition will be unprepared for the realities of adult life. Research suggests that kids do best when they pursue excellence for its own sake.

    In a 2013 interview with CNN, child development authors Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson stress the importance of winning and losing in sports as a model for adult life, including the viewpoint that some adults can be defined as winners and others as losers. According to Merryman and Bronson, sports without defined winners and losers do children a disservice by not reflecting the way adult life is. Merryman and Bronson note that competition teaches children to have a sense of agency -- the sense that one can affect a circumstance through effort.

    According to author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, competition is profoundly damaging to children and is not correlated with performance excellence as generally assumed. If children are told that the most important element in sports or life is to be a winner instead of a loser, they might cheat at sports and display unethical behavior and lack of empathy in other areas of life, Kohn wrote in a 1990 article for "Women's Sports & Fitness" magazine. Their self-esteem can also be badly damaged if they lose. From this viewpoint, games without winners or losers teach kids to cooperate with each other and just have fun.

    Research by sports psychologists has not established any strong link between competition and enhanced performance. According to an October 2012 article in "The New York Times," a research review by the American Psychological Association did not support the idea that excellence in athletic activities is directly related to a competitive format. That suggests that games without winners and losers will have little effect on the desire or ability of children to excel. The Times article stressed the importance of encouraging excellence for its own sake rather than for competitive reasons.

    According to University of St. Thomas psychology professor John Tauer, in "The New York Times," the danger of having games with no winner or loser is that adults could encourage children to develop an inaccurate picture of the world where there are no real challenges and it is always possible to feel good. Children need to be able to confront real challenges, overcome some of them through hard work and deal with the disappointment when a challenge cannot be overcome. Both parents who believe in competitive sports and those who do not should focus on the value of excellence for its own sake rather than as a way of separating winners from losers.

    About the Author

    Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

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