The Cost

From: Special Forum: Good Sports, Bad Sports – May 3, 2001 (SBS – Insight)

“I’m actually an ambassador for Little Athletics, so that’s really exciting for me, because I’m like the Pied Piper amongst these kids. But the problem when I listen to them…they all want to be Cathy Freeman or Melinda Gainsford-Taylor or Matt Shirvington. And when they’re 13 and not winning races and they’re becoming so upset – “Oh, I didn’t win today!” And I’m, like, “That’s OK, sweetie! Good girl – you came second or third…” or “who cares”. They’re retiring because they’re not winning. Who taught them that you have to win? It’s horrifying!”  LEE NAYLOR – Athletics Commissioner / Runner

“The root of all evil in all of this is this obsession with winning, this obsession with rewarding only winners. So that’s where the vicious circle starts. We reward winners, the media focuses in on winners; then if there’s media exposure…comes sponsorship, agents start queuing at the door, etc. Then the athletes or the sportsman or sportswoman wants to win even more, at even greater cost – even if it means cheating, often. My problem with this is not that we are obsessed with winning, but we are obsessed only with winning, not with how we win.”  LES MURRAY – SBS Sports Commentator

While times, fitness levels and absolute standards continue to improve at the elite level, it is becoming harder and harder for many would-be athletes to even get into the competitive ballpark – and it is not  due to a lack of facilities.

As cited by Lee Naylor above, high drop out levels in Little Athletics are paralleling similar reports from other profile sports as unreasonable expectations crush the spirit of young hopefuls. And some parents are at the very heart of the problem themselves, pushing their kids to perform and shaming or even abusing them if they don’t.

“I once saw a coach (who happened to be the athlete’s father) hit a boy because he lost a tennis match, even though the kid gave it 100%.”  MATT GRINLAUBS – Olympic Beach Volleyballer

“The point about kids that get out of sport because of parental pressure or other pressures on them – I’ve seen the 12 or 13 year olds who have retired from sport. The greater worry is then what they’re doing at 15 or 16 to try and fill the void, and it’s a fact of life that there are kids dying because they haven’t got healthy pursuits to follow through. And whether that’s the pressure on role modelling as a sportsperson or whether it’s as a mum or dad, sport is a wonderful education for kids. They learn because of it – then why spoil it? It’s a huge risk, and we lose kids not just to sport but to life as well because of it.”  DENIS BAKER – Author “Kids Sports” on SBS – Insight

So we lose athletes simply because there is nowhere for them to play, only sports and teams in which they must compete – to win. And what of aspiring juniors who do have the talent and will to continue on in sport through to higher levels of competition? They are forced to push their bodies and minds to unprecedented levels of strain and many end up paying a devastating price. Who forces them? In any given moment it could be themselves, their parents, teachers, club, school, university, coaches, sporting association, National Federation or other significant influence. In the bigger picture, it is the system, the culture, of which all the listed elements are unavoidably a part and success in that culture is defined by how much you win.

We love sport.

We love what it can bring into the lives of all who play, coach or support it in any way. But anyone who is associated with sport right now must feel an undercurrent of tension. There is simply something wrong. Just as there is something wrong with the Big Picture (corruption, scandals and turmoil rife within countless National and International Federations), there is something wrong right down at the grass roots level as well. We believe that something stems from our culture’s obsession with winning and the overwhelming focus on parameters that deliver it.

Readers may feel we are taking an excessively extreme view of the situation; that the kind of behaviours we’ve described are limited to a few individuals and exhibited as the exception rather than the rule. Well, look again. Granted, the extreme winning obsession we’ve stereotyped exists only rarely in its pure, uninhibited form. They are the athletes we generally just call “crazy”. But in lesser, more subtle degrees, the attitude is endemic and all around us. Because we are in it ourselves, we probably don’t see it for what it is. We hear: “That’s just the way sport is” or “Its always been that way” or even “I can’t see what the problem is with kids wanting to win…Surely you don’t expect them to go out and want to lose?”

If we can’t see the problem, we are part of it. If we are part of it, we can equally be part of the solution. But first, we have to get a perspective that is objective rather than merely supporting our existing beliefs and self-interest.

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