It’s hard for children to learn if we deny them experiences, writes Greg Cary.

In recent years it has become fashionable to take the focus off winning (and, by implication, losing) in junior sport. In fact, some organisations have now banned scoring.

Fans of the move argue that too many parents place unhealthy emphasis on winning and that children really just want to have fun. This raises an important question: is the problem the attitude of the parents, or is it the winning and losing? Clearly, it’s the former and by changing the nature of junior sport we aren’t addressing the real issue. More than that we are changing the meaning of sport and taking from children the lessons to be gained from winning and losing.

I’ve coached various sports from T-Ball to Rugby at ages from the very young to accomplished players. In that time I’ve seen all kinds of parents and most are terrific. Occasionally there are those who are somehow living out their own dreams through their children without any idea how much damage they are doing. They need to know that children never forget this kind of thing. Ever. And that they squirm and become embarrassed when parents go too far.

The thing is that children by and large enjoy winning – and don’t mind losing. That’s where the attitude of parents becomes vital. Winning and losing are an integral part of sport (and life) and it’s one of the fundamental points sport makes: compete, give it your best, enjoy the game, embrace the result… and move on.

Two memories from a Saturday many years ago

In the morning I was refereeing an under-7 game and as one player raced down the field to score he ran past the opposing fullback who was sitting happily on the grass picking flowers. The smiling flower picker asked me at the end of the game who won. I told him that, against all odds, his team had. He smiled and said: “Did we?” They all then headed off to buy ice creams.

That afternoon I was in charge of an under 16 match. One of the parents was giving me heaps. His son said (loud enough for all to hear): “I wish he’d just shut up.” Nice work, Dad.

Increasingly at the elite level, coaches talk about taking care of their side of the scoreboard. Again, it is a message with wider application. We can’t do much to control the actions and responses of others but we can determine our own.

Wayne Bennett, one of the most successful and respected of all coaches, has long practised this philosophy. Maximise your own performance and the results will take care of themselves.

Winning, therefore, becomes important as a measure of your application of your practised skills, not as a reflection of your superiority over someone else.

Most athletes, when they reflect upon their careers, remember their teammates and those they competed against. The hard work, the camaraderie… the feelings. Results become part of the collective memory. Just a part.

Rudyard Kipling, in his classic poem If, advised: “… to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”

In other words, it’s not the winning and the losing that’s important but, rather, how we deal with them.

It’s hard for children to learn that lesson if we deny them the experience.