Competition Lost: How “Margin-of-Victory” is Distorting How We View Winning in Sports

Ask a retired athlete what he or she misses after leaving the game and, chances are, you’ll hear it’s not the “winning”but the “competing” that is being missed the most.

I wasn’t a very good athlete, but I played all the time —- basketball, football, baseball and street hockey and that’s what I miss —- competing.

When choosing-up sides for pick-up games, we tried to make the teams as even as we could and some of the best games were ones my team didn’t win. It’s not that we didn’t care about winning. We did. We played hard, but there was more enjoyment, more fulfillment in losing a pick-up basketball game 21-19, than in winning 21-3.

I’m sure I would have viewed it differently if we had been playing at crowded courts where there were other teams waiting and only the “winners” stayed on the court, but my point is that winning wasn’t the end all. It was the competition that made it great. There was no better feeling than beating a more talented team through determination and hustle and because you wanted it more. Winning easily against an inferior opponent brought little satisfaction. We saw value in working hard to achieve something.

That has all changed.

Now, “winning” is everything – the bigger the margin the better, and “competing” is no longer part of the equation.

Sadly, a lot of kids would rather win easily than be challenged. They can pile up stats and brag about individual numbers. Achievement through hard work is not viewed as having any value.

It’s a generational shift and it’s an unfortunate one. We should embrace challenges, not shy away from them.

But that’s not happening. Look at video games and “cheat” codes that make winning easier. Gamers can load-up their team and annihilate the opponent, winning by huge margins.

How in the world can it be “fun” to win an NBA video game 174-to-57?

Look at how coaches are viewed in youth leagues.

In Europe, coaches are evaluated on how well they teach and prepare players in the fundamentals of their sport. Here in the U.S., youth coaches are judged almost entirely by their won-loss record.

This encourages coaches to take shortcuts and put winning ahead of teaching. Instead of teaching players proper spacing and running the lanes on a fast break, for instance, it becomes easier to avoid the turnovers that will result during the learning process and instead just walk the ball up the court and get it inside to a team’s bigger-than-average kid to score most of the points. This benefits early-developing players at the expense of the other players. It’s a short-term gain (winning more games) ahead of long-term, more desirable goals. (teaching fundamentals each player needs to improve)

Parents simply have to change their mindset and think about youth sports as a learning experience and stop getting caught up in the winning and losing of games. You wouldn’t believe the number of parents who check out the score book at the end of a youth basketball games to see how many points their son or daughter scored.

Think about it. Is anyone going to remember the scoring totals or won/loss records of a U-12 or 7th grade travel team!

It’s largely our fault, of course.

In an effort to make our kids “tougher” and more prepared for the “real world”, we have become a “results-only” society where the bottom line is the sole measuring stick and how you get there is deemed unimportant.

But think of the message we send:

  • When we value “grades” ahead of “doing your best”.
  • When we obsess over how many points “Johnny” or “Jane” scored rather than how either helped their team to win.
  • When we reward only the “result” and fail to honor the “effort and attitude” exhibited.

We set ourselves up for a “winning is all that matters” and “results-reward” culture and the negative character traits that go along with it.

Is it no wonder that in a recent Josephson Institute poll of nearly 30,000 students, 64% admitted to cheating on an exam and nearly 1-in-3 confessed to stealing something from a store in the last year?

We must move away from the “outcome at any cost” mentality and embrace a “values-reward” system —- one in which we honor integrity, honesty, sportsmanship, effort and attitude —- qualities that truly define “winning”, on the playing field and in life.

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