May 30, 2014

Whatever happened to playing for the love of the game?

There seems to be a trend in junior sport in Australia of rewarding kids for just turning up to play

The message Australian junior cricket is sending young kids is that sport is about everyone getting a prize © Getty Images

May is usually when the Australian federal government hands down its budget. At cricket clubs throughout the country, it is also the month when most trophy nights (awards and prizes) are held.

Regarding the budget, we've been told in no uncertain terms that the age of entitlement is now officially over. Cuts in expenditure, government-assistance programmes, health benefits, university subsidies and the like are due to be introduced to a populace unaccustomed to "tough love", even at the height of the global financial crisis. Apparently Australia can no longer afford an assumption of entitlement and privilege if we are to remain internationally competitive.

As a parent of young children in junior sport, I am now witnessing this sense of entitlement among a cohort of parents and children. I pause to ponder the long-term implications for a generation that is growing up with the notion that sport is a pursuit where everybody gets a prize, regardless of ability and effort. Participation alone is being held up as a trophy. There appears to be a disturbing trend among parents (and to a lesser extent coaches, who are usually volunteer parents) to celebrate and commemorate the mere act of participation, as if that is deserving of a prize or medal.

Let me clarify my position before I am accused of being too harsh. In junior sport, especially at the introductory level, I totally support the policy of encouraging participation and inclusivity at the expense of chasing excellence. Having enough teams, facilities, ovals, equipment and coaches to encourage as many children to try their hand at cricket (modified or traditional) is what cricket administrators should be striving for. The system is geared to giving kids a fair go. They all face the same number of balls, bowl an equal number of overs, rotate fielding positions and wicketkeeping duties. That is as it should be at the youngest ages, perhaps from eight to ten years. The more talented kids shine but they still get the same opportunities as everyone else.

Where it is now becoming ridiculous is the increasingly irritating expectation that mere participation alone warrants a significant song and dance on trophy night. The joy of playing cricket in glorious summer sunshine is no longer enough reward? I struggle to understand why parents (and clubs, influenced by parents, no doubt) feel the need to cement Little Johnny's future participation by giving him a medal for merely turning up each weekend. It is the parents, coaches and groundsmen who need an award for their persistence and dedication.

It has now got to the point where the kids expect to be rewarded for mediocrity. Curiously, most of these parents, presumably from a similar generation as myself, seem to have forgotten what junior cricket was like when they came through the system as youngsters.

I hope my sons keep playing cricket because it teaches them so much about human nature. Wait your turn, accept the umpire's decision, life can be unfair, celebrate modestly, lose graciously

Worse still is the practice in all junior sport, not just cricket, of handing out a Player-of-the-Match award on a rotation system. The kids soon come to expect, demand even, their turn for the soft-drink voucher or the free hamburger. They know that it has got nothing to do with performance - it is obvious to even the smallest child that sport is about everyone getting a prize.

I haven't got a problem with everyone getting a hot dog, if that is the club's policy, but for goodness' sake, don't pretend that it has got anything to do with performance. The kids see through that hypocrisy halfway through their first season, but because they become accustomed to this sense of entitlement ("I'm special because I turned up today"), they soon start to demand extrinsic rewards and inducements as part of their playing contract.

True story: my youngest son had a team-mate who hadn't taken a wicket for three months. When he took his first wicket, his parents' celebration was so over the top that it resulted in a visit to a famous hamburger restaurant with Scottish heritage. Lo and behold, he took another wicket the next week. More cheeseburgers. Then he took a wicket and a catch! Does he get fries with that? What happens when he actually scores a run? Do they buy the franchise? My son took two wickets and complained bitterly to my wife that he gets nothing except a lift to and from cricket. She made him walk home that day - lesson learned!

My other son's U-9 cricket team had a "professional" cricketer in their ranks last season. The lad was not keen on playing cricket, so to get him on the park each Saturday, his mother paid him $50 per game. If he's smart enough, he should refuse to do his homework or eat his vegetables. With all the extra "incentive bonuses", he will soon be able to buy an IPL franchise despite not being particularly interested in the sport.

I've asked my children if they prefer token awards on a rotation policy or to actually earn the award, even if it meant not getting one all season. Unequivocally they vote for the latter. Even children have a sense of striving for excellence until we teach them the principles of mediocrity. My son's rugby team has a future international superstar (Nick Finch; remember the name) and he should rightfully win the Player-of-the-Match award every week, such is the gulf between him and the rest of his mates. My son keeps trying to be as good as Nick. That's his benchmark. He'd rather have no award than just get a lollipop because it was his turn on the roster.

When I was a young cricketer, Stuart Law and Geoff Foley won the trophies every year. Why? Because they were just that much better than the rest of us. There was no jealousy, just a fierce desire to try to emulate them. Their excellence pushed us mediocre cricketers to greater heights. It would have felt hollow to see Law score five times as many runs and not get the award.

At the national level the best 11 cricketers will always be the best. But this policy of ridiculous inclusivity is beginning to damage the game is at grass-roots level, where young kids are being taught that sport (and by extension, life itself) is a game where performance is irrelevant and everybody gets a prize. If only life were that simple.

Taken too far, an obsession with chasing excellence can be a most damaging thing, sucking the enjoyment out of any activity and causing huge psychological stress on young minds. But what's wrong with merely participating for the love of the game, without the need for a trophy or medal? Is cricket so unappealing that we can only sustain interest if we offer bribes?

In a global forum such as this, it would be interesting to hear views from across the world. Do the cricket-crazy countries of the subcontinent have similar policies? What about regions where cricket is one of many choices that a child can opt for?

I hope my sons keep playing cricket, because it teaches them so much about human nature. Wait your turn, accept the umpire's decision, life can be unfair, celebrate modestly, lose graciously, be patient, take risks occasionally, learn from your mistakes. The best trophy they get is a lesson in life. My reward is if they keep playing the game, at any level, for as long as I'm alive. I'll keep telling them how good I was and how many runs I scored when I was a kid. The older I get, the better I used to be!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 3, 2014, 10:27 GMT

    Alarm bells rang for me when the author titled junior cricketers as displaying "mediocrity". Judged against what? Is he going to go down to the Under-10's and label the kids "mediocre". That is a sure way to decrease participation and then he won't have any players to Talent ID.

    I remember a former test cricketer here in WA refusing to work with female cricketers because it was what he called "mediocre". Therefore he didn't get any female cricketers in his area.

    Was Michael "Mediocre" when he first picked up a bat? No - he was just having a go and hopefully some fun. It seems now Michael wants all cricketers to be instantly talented.

    I applaud the parents who celebrated their child's first goal in 3 years. The child wasn't as fortunate to be doing that each week but still their parents brought them to the game each week - bravo for them.

    I hope people reading this overseas don't think all Australians think like this.

  • John on June 2, 2014, 17:52 GMT

    Having read this excellent article,I find it strange that a sport orientated country like Australia are going down the road of winning does not mean as much as taking part.When I started playing sport in England in the mid-fifties First was First,Second and below took part.Children will not have the winning instinct in any sport if they believe in the ethos of everybody is a winner irrespective of if they come First or Last.Can you imagine Douglas Jardine turning up in Australia in 1932 and saying to Harold Larwood,the outcome does not matter but the taking part is better than the winning,I think not.Sport is about opponent against opponent with the winner being the superior sportsperson and not everybody being classed the same because political correctness deems that there should be no winners only participants.

  • Michael on May 31, 2014, 8:38 GMT

    Personally I would make a distinction between school and club sport. In school PE lessons - which children have to take part in whether they like it or not - a non-competitive approach makes a lot of sense. Otherwise the unathletic ones will have a miserable time and most likely be put off exercise for life. In a club setting - where most children will be there because they like sport - giving everyone prizes fools nobody, least of all the children concerned.

    In my experience, children are often more mature about these things than their parents - who tend towards attitudes either of extreme competitiveness or extreme anti-competitiveness while the kids just want to be allowed to enjoy playing.

    And some rewards can defeat the point. Given the small amount of physical activity involved in playing a cricket match, a child who gets a cheeseburger for doing so is probably more likely to end up obese than if he sat in front of a computer all day.

  • Dimuthu on May 30, 2014, 16:01 GMT

    This article resonates immensely with my thoughts. And I know for a fact that I am not alone. Many PE teachers I know feel the same. Competitve sport in British schools has been dying, and there are some championing a comeback for it. Personally (I have no kids - yet), I'd like the youngest kids (aged 5-8 maybe?) to get some award for trying. Maybe something simple as "Batsman" "Bowler" "Allrounder" "Wicket Keeper" "Great Catcher" etc to highlight something they are good at, as positive reinforcement. But as soon as they are old enough to play competitve games, this notion should be dropped. The most bizarre thing for me was to read about school sport meet days where winners of races are given the same award as those who 'also ran.' Pathetic state of affairs!

  • Tim on May 30, 2014, 14:53 GMT

    A very good article. I agree that 'everyone's a winner' and rotational awards are not a good thing for any sport however I question it's prevalence.

    As a minis rugby coach in England, the last time our age group did that was U6's & awards have been given on merit since. That is not to say less able players aren't rewarded because the awards may not go to the most naturally talented child but rather to one less able but who has put in extraordinary effort and achieved a breakthrough moment. This serves to show all that they can still achieve and shows those at the top they shouldn't be too complacent in their status as others are on their tail.

    My son last won a rugby award at U7's and is 10yrs old now. He knows he has to work to improve to be one of the best players. His most treasured trophies are his cricket bowling award and league winners medal - earned on merit. He knows he has to work hard to earn the bowling award again, and to improve his rugby to earn similar plaudits

  • Aaron on May 30, 2014, 10:58 GMT

    I coach kid's soccer and like you I think we've reached the point where we're missing the whole point of playing sport. To be honest I'm anti-elitist but I don't think giving everyone a prize is the solution to kids who feel bad about never winning an award. My attitude is; get rid of all the awards, let the kids who are only there for the prizes disappear and lets get back to just playing for the uncomplicated joy of it. If that were to happen I'd be a happy coach - no more tears, no more politics, no more coming up with silly reasons to give out POD certificates. The problem is prizes in this context have nothing to do with sport - they're social engineering. Using them to teach 'excellence' when children already get tested, ranked and graded all day at school is overkill. Attempting to counter the problem of excessive elitism by giving away even more prizes is a frankly inept attempt at social engineering in the opposite direction. Why don't we just let the children play?

  • Amit on May 30, 2014, 8:25 GMT

    Michael, I am on the same page, line and word as you. Accused of being harsh but I cannot stand the notion of reward for participation. I learnt my cricket on the streets of Mumbai and many turn up and pay fielding fees. In the nets, dropping a catch and splitting your nail resulted in 5 push ups, 2 laps of the ground and a tape on your finger. Green grass was a luxury in my teens. Now in England, you see a lot kids with a sense of entitlement. It frustrates me that these kids don't know what they have. Especially in England, where the sun is a luxury, just being out there, going crazy on the field should be reward enough. If you're good, you will get what it needs to become better. I fear sport is turning into a profession rather than being a professional sport. Everyone gets something for turning up no matter how good or bad you are. A sports team is a collection of the very best. The rest should be there purely because they want to be. No greater reward than watching the very best??

  • G on May 30, 2014, 6:02 GMT

    I'm not sure if Australia has a problem getting more kids to play cricket. In the UK with cricket off terrestrial TV many children grow up having not seen the game on TV. In such cases incentivising them for showing up maybe the only way to get them to try the game. This problem of cricket being visible only to the upper classes will result in a smaller talent pool for England to choose from and a subsequent fall in quality of its top teams. I tried my hand at coaching in a not so affluent village in Cambridge, and unlike children from the subcontinent, many of the nine year olds had no idea how to grip the ball or the bat. So incentives for participation may be one way of increasing cricket's talent pool.

  • Dummy4 on May 30, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    i agree with many things. Especially the bit about all the kids getting awards. They do not learn anything positive and go on to strive only for the "sweets". At grass roots level coaches should be teaching them discipline and ask what aspect they like most about cricket. Rather than make them switch roles or everyone gets a bowl. I personally hated bowling and hated that my coach used to force me to bowl, because i ended up getting smashed. I gave up and stopped playing because i felt like everything was forced on me, i was not allowed to make a decision for myself. Kids these days should not be forced to keep wicket or bowl if they don't wish to. Better to let them choose on the basis of what they enjoy doing.