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Bil Gilbert
May 16, 1988
Is It What Life's All About?
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May 16, 1988


Is It What Life's All About?

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Many of the authorities expressed concern about the ills bedeviling elite athletes today—substance abuse, cheating and so on. However, the moral lapses of athletes were generally attributed not to the stresses of competition but to those that accompany fame and fortune, that is, the rewards of winning. McGee thinks that, paradoxically, the superb physical endowments of elite athletes may contribute to their troubles by making them prone to superman delusions, the sense that they are impervious to the pitfalls—carousing, booze, drugs—that strike down lesser men.

The major worry shared by academics and athletes was that the conduct of sports celebrities might unfavorably influence young people. "If you think, as I do, that sports can be a powerful tool in shaping behavior, then you have to be concerned about what children are learning from watching so-called big-time sports," says Scanlan. She is not talking about the impact of the occasional jock junkie, drunk or rapist, but rather of what has become ordinary behavior that, if not officially condoned, is often excused as being more or less unavoidable in big-time sport.

"Kids see athletes threatening each other," Scanlan says, "and intentionally trying to cause injuries, virtually bragging about cheating and not getting caught. Coaches slug players, intimidate officials, throw chairs, lie about recruiting. The main message is that just about any means you can use is justified by the end of winning. Once, sport encouraged ethical behavior, what used to be called sportsmanship. In many instances it is now teaching violence, greed, selfishness, disrespect for others."

Glyn Roberts, a University of Illinois professor of sports pyschology, is also concerned about the defective role model presented by athletic heroes these days. "Increasingly, the prevailing morality on display in sports is that anything is O.K. if it works and you don't get caught," says Roberts. "There are other things in modern society that teach this, but for kids, sports is now the major activity that drives home the point that being successful, not being good in the conventional moral sense, is what counts."

Besides those who seek success at any price, Roberts is concerned about the much larger group—80%, by his reckoning—who try competitive sports and then drop them permanently by age 17. Some quit because of lack of time, some because they find more interesting pursuits. But many leave because they find the pressure to win too great, the agony of losing too painful. It is seldom expressed this way, but they seem to come away with a sense that sports are unhealthy for them. It may well be. Roberts says that some stress in sports and elsewhere is energizing, even pleasurable, but excessive stress can lead to real miseries, including loss of appetite, overeating, insomnia and respiratory disorders.

But perhaps the most destructive competitive experience for a child is one that deprives him of a whole dimension of life by driving him away from future competition.

"Competitive sports can be very good for many children," Roberts says. "Obviously they lose those benefits and pleasures if they drop out. But we are indirectly telling a lot of kids to do just that: If you don't show early promise, competitive sports are not for you. Now we have tournaments and trophies for four-year-old wrestlers. I think the way many children's sports are organized—winners going on, losers going home—is a national disgrace."

Roberts and Scanlan, like almost everyone who has watched children unobtrusively, have noted that, left to their own devices, kids organize their own contests and seem to enjoy them thoroughly. To adults, the games may seem messy and digressive, meandering slowly, if at all, toward a final score. But then kids are kids, not small adults, and they often have different priorities. Scanlan has been struck by the nice, natural touch they have for cooperatively setting up their own competitions that are exciting, but not so exciting as to cause stress, hiccups or hives.

Martens shares the opinion that young children—certainly four-year-old wrestlers—could do with a little more letting alone than many of them get. The main purpose of the American Coaching Effectiveness Program, of which Martens is the founder, is described by its name. In Martens's view, a bad coach is one who gives 14-year-olds powerful pep talks about sucking it up and bearing down so they can close in on the county championship, followed by the states and (who knows?) maybe the nationals. A good coach, in terms of influence and, generally, of won-lost records, too, concentrates on the details of how to win rather than on what his charges already are thinking too much about—what happens if they win or lose.

For reasons already noted, focusing on smaller, more solvable technical problems increases physical efficiency and reduces anxiety and stress. Also, these methods increase, in a sense, the number of potential winners. Thus the 12th boy on a junior high basketball squad may play badly by conventional standards. But if skill instead of winning has been made the immediate objective, he can be praised for having thrown two passes better than he ever had.

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