Why We Play Sports: Winning Motivates, But Can Backfire, Too

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 (Lorenzo Gritti for NPR)
(Lorenzo Gritti for NPR)

Playing sports has always been important to 31-year-old Erik Johanson, a city planner in Philadelphia. Johanson thrived in baseball and ice hockey as a kid, he says — "one of the best players on the team in high school."

Today, Johanson is married and expecting his first child but is still passionate about ice hockey — and about winning. He plays on a highly competitive team of guys who got together after college and still play weekly in an adult league; they hope to take the crown this year.

"I think if you had that experience when you were younger — and that experience feels really good to win — I don't think you ever really lose that," he says. "I think, especially when life gets more complicated when you grow up, you still need it. You have fewer opportunities for it, because it's not such a key part of your life anymore, so you seek it out."

A recent poll NPR did with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a solid majority of adults in the U.S. who play sports — 56 percent — say that winning is important to them, too. Fifty-four percent of adults who play sports say they always or often push themselves to their physical limits, and 85 percent say their performance is important to them.

Plus, victory in sport is just plain fun, says George Gmelch, an anthropologist at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Gmelch studies sports culture, and he played professional baseball in the minor leagues.

Even watching your team win feels good, Gmelch says; imagine how great people feel when "they've contributed to the team's success." But interestingly, he says, as we get older that need to compete and win in the sports we play seems to wane.

That may be one reason why interest in playing sports declines with age. Forty percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 25 say they play sports. But among those who are 26 to 29 years old, only one in four plays. As for the over-50 crowd, just 20 percent play sports.

For anyone who views participation in sports as one way to keep adults physically active as they age, that sharp drop-off in participation can be dismaying.

Respondents to our poll cite health problems and injuries among their reasons for not playing sports. But they also say they just don't have the time or the interest.

Sports psychology coach Greg Chertok, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine, says this drop in interest may stem in part from how today's adults viewed losing as kids, not just winning.

"Did we view losing as a blow to our self esteem?" Chertok says. "Did losing guarantee a verbally abusive car ride home with Dad? Did losing mean a 10-minute diatribe from the coach after the game?"

Those sorts of negative reactions to not winning can be demoralizing, says Chertok, and can lay the groundwork for a negative view of sports in childhood and teen years — or later in adulthood, when wins get even tougher to come by.

"Kids don't begin playing sports with the sole intention of winning," Chertok says. That's often an adult-imposed goal, he says, starting as early as Little League or youth soccer. "And often parents can be as demanding — and, detrimental — as coaches."

Learning early in life to feel pleasure in a win is great, Chertok says, but the main goals of youth sport should be exercise, fun, social interaction and personal growth and development — character building. Parents and coaches who put a "rigid, inflexible emphasis on winning," he says, not only put kids off, but risk turning them off sports — and its health benefits — for good.


Our sports and health series continues over the summer, based on the results of our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

No question, a victory when you play a sport can make your day - and not just for kids. It turns out that winning may be a key factor in keeping people active in sports in adulthood. A recent poll that NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a solid majority of adults who play sports say winning is important to them. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more in our summer series on sports and health.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Growing up, sports was always really important to Erik Johanson. He played baseball in high school and college, and being good at the game made a big difference.

ERIK JOHANSON: I was always one of the best players on my team probably until I got to college when I would say I was just average. But I was on the team in college, so I think that indicates that I was reasonably good at the sport.

NEIGHMOND: Today, Johanson's 31. He plays baseball now and then, but mostly he plays ice hockey on a very competitive hockey team.

JOHANSON: It's a group of guys that have been together in the Philadelphia area for almost a decade, and we play together every year. We play other teams like us that have been together for years - all got together after college and formed a team.

NEIGHMOND: Johanson's team - team Orange, named simply for the color of the uniforms - is pretty good. When they play, they play to win.

JOHANSON: It was always very important to me. And I was always actually - to be honest with you - frustrated when it didn't seem as important to everyone else. Winning was definitely a large part of the reason why I played sports.

NEIGHMOND: In our poll, 85 percent of adults who play sports also say their performance is important to them. And 56 percent say winning is important while 54 percent say that they always or often push themselves to their physical limits. Team Orange vied for the lead championship last year. They didn't win, but Johanson's the first to say that for him the drive to win is as strong as ever.

JOHANSON: But I think if you had that experience when you were younger, I mean, that experience feels really good - to win. And I don't think you ever really lose that and I think, especially when life gets more complicated as you grow up, you still need it. You have fewer opportunities for it because it's not such a key part of your life anymore, so you seek it out.

GEORGE GMELCH: Winning makes the game more fun.

NEIGHMOND: For pretty much everyone, says University of San Francisco anthropologist George Gmelch.

GMELCH: Just look at people's reactions after a softball game. They've had a better time when they win, particularly if you've contributed to the team's success.

NEIGHMOND: But Gmelch says the need to compete and the drive to win diminishes over time. For example, he says it's a lot easier to coach a team of 40-year-olds than a team of 20-year-olds.

GMELCH: The young guys that are the most competitive and care the most about winning and are most likely to make a fuss over a call; and as players get older, they're less likely to be troublesome.

NEIGHMOND: As competitiveness wanes - and that may be one reason why interest in sports declines with age. Our poll shows 40 percent of adults between 18 and 25 say they play sports, but by the time people are 26 to 29, only 1 in 4 still play. And for the over-50 crowd, just 20 percent say they play sports. People cite health problems and injuries as reasons for not playing sports. They also say they have less time and less interest. Sports psychology coach Greg Chertok says that can have a lot to do with how winning and losing were perceived during childhood.

GREG CHERTOK: Did we view losing as a blow to our self-esteem? Did losing guarantee a verbally-abusive car ride home with Dad? Did losing mean a 10-minute diatribe from your coach after the game?

NEIGHMOND: Kids don't begin playing sports with the sole intention of winning, says Chertok. That's often an adult-imposed goal.

CHERTOK: The main goals of youth sport are fun and safety and personal growth and development where you're kind of character building. But when the coach puts a kind of rigid, inflexible emphasis on winning, that can be kind of off-putting to children and kind of confusing and also very unenjoyable.

NEIGHMOND: And Chertok says that can have a negative and lifelong impact on one's commitment and enjoyment of sports. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.