Why we need competition in competitive sports

What are we really losing when we remove competition from sport?
What are we really losing when we remove competition from sport? Photo: Getty

Like it or not, competition is an age-old part of human existence. We compete every day, often without even knowing it. And as much as we can try to avoid competition, or at least minimise it, it’s very hard to avoid it altogether. And it’s not just adults who find themselves competing. Once kids are at school, there are almost daily opportunities for them to compete. School sports. Swimming carnivals. Cross-country running. Talent quests. Even how many books they can read for the Premier’s Literary Challenge. Kids are expected to compete all the time, and mostly they’re very adept at understanding winning and losing.

So why is it that large sporting organisations would decide to take the element of competition out of competitive sport? This week the AFL announced their plan to extend the current ban on competition and awards for under-8 and under-9 to include under-10 football. They argue that it’s being done “to provide children with a fun, safe and positive experience through a well-structured match program that considers the level of maturation in motor, cognitive, psychosocial and emotional skill of children in this age group." And they are not the only sport that is doing it.

This year, under the banner of Net Set Go, (a Netball Australia program) children between 8 and 10 years who are playing competitive netball for a club are no longer required to score. For the team my daughter plays in, this is deeply frustrating. The girls, all aged between 8 and 10, don’t understand why they are no longer required to score. They’re in Grade 4, play competitive sport in class time, learn chess where there is a winner and a loser, but now can’t score in the weekend sport they play.

Last year the team played competitive netball under the banner of Netta. The games were scored and there was a ladder. There were no finals, and every competitor was presented with a medal at the end of each season, so they all felt a sense of achievement and pride, while still having an idea of where they sat in relation to other teams.

But this year the competition has changed. In the material sent out about these new policies, Netball Australia points out that research shows children under-8 and under-6 playing competitive sport where scoring is a rule, drop out of sport earlier than if they are playing non-scoring games. This makes total sense, but the competition my daughter is playing in is for children between 8 and 10 years.

Like the AFL, Netball Australia also has a simplified set of rules for junior sport.

And again it makes total sense that children learning a sport need different rules to those experienced in the game. However, it seems that the main rule that has been adopted in our competition, is the one that requires no scoring. Other major rules - like not alternating centre passes but allowing the team that didn’t score the goal to have the next centre pass isn’t adopted, and neither is subbing players on and off the court whenever the coach chooses. So why have they adopted a rule (that’s only suggested anyway) of not scoring?  

I understand trying to teach children the rules and ethos of a sport without making it about winning. But I wonder if trying to do this by actively not scoring is actually confusing children about what competitive sport is. Competitive sport is, by its very nature, a competition. Kids naturally understand this. They watch sporting events. They cheer on their friends in races at school. They play board games at home. They know that the goal of certain activities is to win. Why pretend that it isn’t? Perhaps for the same reason we now see presents in every layer of pass-the-parcel in the fear that children can’t understand missing out.

If these changes are springing from a belief that 8-10 year old children cannot cope with losing, then I think it’s severely misguided. My daughter’s team lost all but one game out of 14 last season. They were thrashed some weeks. And yet they still played as a team. They still tried. And they still shook hands and congratulated their opponents every week. What mattered to them was not whether they had lost, but whether they had played a team they thought were nice. This year, ironically, their team has won a few games. Not that we are scoring of course, but even without an official score they still know if they’ve won. But winning to them is just another aspect of the game. They don’t love it any less if they lose, nor do they love it any more if they win. And actually I would argue, that for kids who are highly competitive and do put a lot of emphasis on winning, they are more likely to be taught how to be good losers if they are actually allowed to lose, than if there is no scoring at all.

Surely what we need to be doing is teaching children to be good and fair losers rather than mandating a non-scoring rule in competitive sport. As parents we should emphasise the code of playing fair sport, and focus on how hard they try. We should teach them what makes a good winner. And perhaps even more importantly, what makes a good loser, without pretending that competitive sport is only competitive when you are over a certain age.