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From the Quad

Overemphasis on Winning Undermines Achievement

Winning is not always the path to success. One of the best places to see this play out is in contemporary youth sports culture, which often prioritizes short-term wins over long-term development.

John O’Sullivan, an experienced coach and prominent speaker on youth sports, founded the Changing the Game Project to highlight this issue. In a blog titled, The Enemy of Excellence in Youth Sports, O’Sullivan outlines the types of decisions made on a daily basis by coaches throughout the country. Focusing young players on specific positions, organizing more games and fewer practice sessions, and encouraging year-round participation in a single sport are strategies that may build winning teams for a season—but don’t nurture the physical skills and resilience young athletes need to achieve the next level of competition.

I see young people struggle with the effects of this training as they consider secondary schools. Candidates often face the following choice: Attend School A, which has a celebrated winning record, but where this particular student will likely spend a lot of time on the team’s bench. Or attend School B, where the program is not as recognized, but the student will likely be a major contributor to the team. Our culture’s emphasis on winning makes this a heartfelt dilemma and discourages students from making a priority of personal growth.

As an advisor and mentor to young people, I am biased toward experiences where they can be active contributors and afford to take risks. Frequent participation provides the most opportunities to learn the process of working hard toward improvement. Actually being on the ice, or the court, or the field does far more than sitting on the bench to nurture a lifelong love of athletics. And the experience of being on a team brings a deeper sense of satisfaction when a player sees that his or her personal effort has made a difference in the outcome.

This way of thinking coincides with the “growth mindset” advocated by Stanford psychology professor and bestselling author Carol Dweck. Her research is welcomed by educators, business leaders, and others nationwide for documenting how motivation and productivity are influenced by people’s beliefs about their abilities. Those who see basic abilities as fixed traits, tend to divide the world into “winners” and “losers” and often have difficulty bouncing back after disappointments. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient because they believe basic abilities can be developed through consistent effort.

These are the psychological underpinnings of why O’Sullivan describes the emphasis on winning as the “enemy of excellence” in youth sports. Maximizing the abilities that young athletes have at any given moment often comes at the sacrifice of investment in the process. This reinforcing of a fixed mindset has repercussions beyond athletics. The path to excellence in academics, for example, comes from a sincere effort to learn, rather than applying shortcuts to get an A.

In athletics, in academics, and in other arenas of life, a person’s willingness to continue striving and improving is a key factor leading to overall, long-term success.

Holly McGlennon Treat specializes in helping families interested in independent junior and secondary boarding schools. She can be reached at holly@thebertramgroup.com