The Crippling Effect Of High Self-Esteem

When I started elementary school two major things were developing in the world. Coming home from school one day I discovered that the family computer now had an internet connection. That was the more obvious change. The change that took me many years to see was that high self-esteem for children was slowly gaining greater importance than teaching children to deal with disappointment and strive to be better. The idea is that increased self esteem leads to greater achievement because the individual should feel better about themselves. Having worked with young kids for the past 10 years, I consider putting high self-esteem before achievement one of the worst wide-ranging social experiments for developing children.

The dictionary definition of self-esteem is “a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities.” I believe we should teach young kids to have respect for themselves as a unique individual, but the second part of the definition is where I’ve seen problems. The idea that I should feel good about my abilities in anything despite solid evidence to the contrary confuses me. This idea filtered into sports with the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. Even if a player was terrible they got a trophy! Most of the average and below average players kept getting trophies until realizing at an older age that they were not very skilled.

I scored a goal against my own team in my soccer league when I was 5. It was the last game of the season and I got turned around on the field. I tore through my teammates as they stood wondering what I was doing and kicked the ball into the net. My parents told me that I was so excited to score my first goal that none of the coaches or parents had the heart to tell me that I sealed my team’s loss. I got a trophy, but I was 5. I barely knew what sport I was playing, and I definitely didn’t know which direction to run to. This had little to no effect on me. I kept playing soccer, tried baseball and swim team, but eventually landed on lacrosse as my go to sport.

I have no problem giving trophies to kids U9 and below for participating for a whole season. I think committing to a full season of their chosen sport is a good lesson for little kids to learn, and a trophy for showing up is good positive reinforcement. Above U9 is an entirely different story.

U11, U13, and U15 kids know who is good, who is okay, and who is bad. Giving trophies to every kid at the end of the season cheapens their knowledge that one team is definitely the best, and some players are better than others. This is not to say that little Johnny is a better person than little Timmy, but that little Jimmy is a better lacrosse player than little Timmy.

Trevor Tierney recently posted “The ‘Best Team’ May Not Be What Is Best For Our Kids” on his blog. He asserts that adults should not rush to create the “best” or most dominate team in an area simply so their players can have the best winning percentage. This is best illustrated by the fracturing of select travel teams at every age level in Georgia. In 2005-2006 there was exactly one travel team in Georgia, but that was a function of the times. As the sport grew it made more sense for there to be travel teams based off geographic location so players didn’t have to travel 2 1/2 hours just to practice. Unfortunately, the drive to give kids better self-esteem through cheap wins has diluted Georgia travel teams (also travel teams across the nation. This is not a one-state phenomena).

Some parents got frustrated when their player’s travel team didn’t post enough wins or hoist a plastic tournament trophy. So splinter groups formed and kids who had years of playing experience were loaded onto teams and scheduled in “B” division tournaments while their worst player could start on any “A” division team in the state. Predicable scored followed: 22-0, 15-3, 25-5 game scores started cropping up more and more in the various youth games I officiated over the course of a year. The parents did this for two reasons: One, the parents wanted to be a part of a winning culture as soon as possible and without putting in the years of effort it takes to get to that point. Two, parents wanted their kids to feel good, which means winning games, and what better way is there than stacking a bunch of U13 players together to play against kids who just learned how to hold a the lacrosse stick? I’ve reffed these games, and it is more than a little demoralizing to watch.

These parents miss the point of athletics. There are times when when one team is going to dominate another. My old high school Pace used to crush some teams. We considered those games “taking care of business,” not “business as usual,” and our coach regularly worked the less experienced players into those games. I rarely enjoyed those blowout victories. Sure they were fun, but the pride in the win didn’t stick around for long. Oddly enough, I have more positive memories from our loses to Westminster in my three years at Pace. My senior year I remember losing to Westminster 4-3, or 5-4. More importantly to me was that both teams came to play and it was one of my best performances as a player I ever had. We lost, but it didn’t destroy my self-esteem. I was more proud of how my teammates and I played in that loss than how I played in every blowout victory my team had that year.

Trevor’s final sentences from his post state: “Instead of finding a better team to play on, find a way to make your team better. This is how you can truly learn to win something of lasting value through the sports.” I have learned far more from losing games than winning them. Most players will have blowout victories at some point in their careers, but the win matters far less than the road to get there. Consider that Peyton Manning currently has an 11-11 playoff record. He is mathematically average in the playoffs, but I would challenge anyone out there to say he is not one of the greatest QB’s of all time (and don’t tell me that he left to another team. Archie didn’t trade him to the Broncos so that argument is moot!). The way he plays the game is more important than his ultimate win/loss record. That is a lesson all adults in youth sports should take to heart.

If you want your child to play a youth sport so they can win lots of games you will always be disappointed because there is always another team out there with more wins. Find a program near you that you like and don’t leave just because the team doesn’t win enough games. Is your kid improving? Is your kid having fun? Those are the questions you should ask yourself when thinking about moving to another team.

As a coach, I want a player who has experienced losing. I don’t like spending time teaching a U15 player who lost a close game that the world hasn’t ended. We all want to win, but losing is a part of life so it is definitely going to be a part of your kids playing experience. If you want to build their self-esteem by seeking out the dominate team two hours away so they can never lose then I say you are crippling your child because they will lose in the future and they won’t have losing experiences from childhood sports where they learned how to deal with it.

Cheers,
Gordon

About Lou Corsetti

Gordon is a born lacrosse official who played for ten years before realizing he'd much rather ref the game than play it. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia and officiates youth, high school, and collegiate men's lacrosse games all over the southeast. His passion is educating and training officials, coaches, players, parents and all other fans on the rules of lacrosse, it's history, and how best to develop lacrosse in new areas.

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