The Bell Curve Of Competitiveness

Saturday, January 12 2019 @ 12:51 pm ACDT

Contributed by: Wesley Hull

Recently, an interesting football conversation commenced nearby. It involved the concept of whether or not scoring should be removed from games of AFL Masters to reduce the amount of aggressive competiveness amongst players whose glory days are behind them and should possibly just be playing for fun.

Footy is many things to many people. Therefore, there will not be a consensus on whether this (at this stage unofficial) idea has merit. But what is compelling is the link between this potential expectation for our oldest players and the arguments for our youngest players – kids.

For a moment, let’s assume that the idea has merit and one day we have AFL Masters playing for no scores – just enjoyment. We have already seen AFL Victoria introduce no scores for junior grades from the 2015 season where grades up to Under 10 would play with no scores and develop “an enjoyment philosophy rather than a winning philosophy’’ (Herald Sun, 2014). Since then most states and territories have more or less adopted the same policies.

It is not highly likely that Masters’ players, who have usually been through the grind of wholly competitive footy, could adapt so quickly.

However, what we now have is like a bell curve. Next to no competitiveness score-wise at the youngest ages, growing relative to age group through local, state then elite levels and dropping back to nothing as we get “too” old for regular competition.

Before going any further, I am not a passive fence-sitter here for the balance of a story. I am firmly in the camp that competition should exist at all levels and it is the people creating unnecessary pressure on and off the field that need to change – not the game. But, more of that later. I should also add that I have played junior, senior, Nines and Masters footy myself, as well as coaching, so have seen much of this first hand.

But, enough of personal opinions. The T. H Chan School Of Public Health at Harvard University identified many reasons why sport is good for kids. They cite health benefits, getting kids active, learning discipline and dedication, social values and learning how to get along with others, mental health and preparation for futures as key values of sport – competitive or non-competitive. This information was based on interviews with over 2500 families through their 2015 interviews.

That weight of evidence should be compelling, but there is another demon in the closet. A study by Mills, Butt, Maynard and Harwood (2012) in the U.K argues that there is pressure brought on kids in sport by adults through “coaches also [acknowledging] detrimental characteristics that some parents display, for example ‘over-inflating player’s ego’, ‘providing inappropriate coaching advice’, ‘living vicariously through son’, ‘mollycoddling their son’, and ‘putting pressure on son’.” These quotes should now include daughters also.

Further to this line of thought, the Washington Post reported the findings of the National Alliance of Youth Sports (U.S.A) in 2016 which suggested many young people felt that sport is, “just not fun anymore.”

In this survey, the interviewers found a range of reasons why this idea may be valid including: “It’s not fun anymore because it’s not designed to be”, “Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it”, “There is a clear push for kids to specialize and achieve at the highest possible level”, “There is a cost to be competitive and not everyone is willing or able to pay it”. There is also the argument that the social pull of technology and social media is drawing more kids away.

So, now we can add the other elephant in the room – the pressure of parents/adults/coaches on kids that leads to so many dropping out of sport (according to the University of Wollongong, 250 000 kids a year are dropping out of organised sport in Australia). In 2015, University of Queensland professor Matt Sanders told The Australian “that parents should be aware of other spectators and object when they get too emotional. The parents have got very high expectations of their own kids, and when things don’t go to plan they become emotionally distressed.”

This is identified through innumerable sources as a key reason for kids leaving sport, or at least enjoying it less. It is also a source for the “win at all costs” type of mentality that is changing the face of junior sport – and by extension all ages through to potentially AFL Masters level.

The above research does not exist (yet) for AFL Masters. I should also point out here that whilst the weight of discussion revolves around boy’s and men’s sport, the same is largely true for women’s sport – with a number of other considerations as well.

The most fundamental nucleus of any sport – however far back into history you care to delve – sees sport and competition intertwined almost as one. To set yourself against another the expected outcome is victory – individual or team. I see no problem with the concept of winning. It teaches us to strive and give our best. But the problem lies in the methods. Winning has to involve fairness, respect, empathy, motivation and a desire to give you all. It should never involve alienation, disrespect, degradation, anger or a desire to create an unhealthy environment for any participant.

This now leads back to the argument about AFL Masters. If looked at on the bell curve of less competitiveness at the most junior levels, increasingly more through the pre-teens, teens to adult levels and a lessening (not stopping) at older levels, then sport can be enjoyable and desirable. To get older players to dust off their boots again is just as difficult as getting kids to put boots on in the first place.

Just as junior levels should be about fun and participation, so too should the oldest levels. But to achieve this, education is the key. Teach old and young the core values of sport and stamp out the negative actions which repel people from the game.

I hope what I heard is just noise. I truly hope that AFL Masters keeps scoreboards. But at the same time, at my age I don’t need a coach or a fan yelling at me to do better, be better, be faster. To me, getting out of bed successfully in the morning is a major victory. I just want the fun.

Because unless a sport is fun, it has a limited future. That should be the aim of the footy bell curve as it starts at very low competitive levels, grows in relation to age and experience and settles again in later years.

At least, that’s the theory.

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