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

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