The Scorekeeper’s Dilemma:
Failure and Success in the Little League and Life
Earlier this year, my ten-year-old son’s little league basketball team was crushed 50–2. I watched helplessly as the opposing team made layup after layup, as my son and his teammates struggled to mount a credible defense. I live in a rural county where little league sports are an important social outlet — not just for children, but for their parents. The bleachers, therefore, were packed, and fans of the opposing team were vociferous in their enthusiasm, standing to applaud the 35-foot basket the victors made at the buzzer. The referees were nonpartisan and encouraging. But, man, it was bad.
I left the gym with a profound sense of unease that I have yet to unravel. In the 6–8 year-old league, where my younger son is assigned, players travel with impunity and the scoreboard sits perpetually at 0–0. Parents compliment one-another’s children and celebrate baskets of every provenance. In the 9–11 league, score is kept, strict calls are made, and impassioned fans cry, “DEFENSE!”
Channeling my inner Mike Gundy, I wrote a letter to the director of the league, which my son would have been mortified to read. I asked for clarification regarding whether the coaches had made an effort to ensure even distribution of talent across the teams. I expressed my desire to understand how the organizers of our league balance the natural desire to win with the implicit goals of fostering a love of the game, promoting athletic activity, and nurturing teamwork. I have not received a reply. And I do not believe it is fair for me to expect a reply. Because the truth is that little league teams in our county are picked by the coaches who lead them. And these coaches, understandably, want to pick the best possible players while still encouraging less athletically gifted kids to participate. Now and then, the vulnerability of this system reveals itself and a team of 9–11 year-olds gets overwhelmed 50–2. In the weeks that followed, I have come to realize that the questions I posed to the athletic director of our little league program are deeper and more philosophical than I had first allowed.
What was revealed to me in the disparity between how 6–8 year-old and 9–11 year-old little league basketball is administered in our county coincides with an inflection point in the educational development of the typical American child. In what could quite possibly be a poetic coincidence, this transition from playing to learn the game to playing to win the game also corresponds with the start of “No Child Left Behind” testing in the third grade. One year, the focus is almost exclusively on growing and having fun. The next year, kids are suddenly accountable to an intricate system of rules and, with it, the staggering expectations of ostensibly supportive grownups. They start to measure their self-worth according to the judgments of others rather than the inherent joy of being on a cohesive team striving together against formidable challenges to achieve ambitious goals.
Lessons from the Inner Game of Tennis
Frustrated with traditional approaches to tennis instruction, Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, discovered that shifting the nonjudgmental awareness of his students to their strokes and away from a rigid ideal of what was right produced breakthroughs in their ability to learn and grow. Gallwey’s unorthodox approach to tennis instruction caused a sensation that was tested on national prime time television in 1970. The network scouted for Gallwey a lineup of students, none of whom had ever played tennis and most of whom were in suboptimal physical shape. Within minutes, Gallwey had successfully coached a sedentary woman who had shown up to the program in a floor-length house dress so that she consistently hit the ball over the net — including an enviable backhand. Gallwey did not provide traditional tennis instruction to the woman at all. He simply told her to say, “bounce” when the ball hit the court and, “hit” when her tennis racket made contact — which it repeatedly did.
In the simplest of terms, Gallwey’s approach — which he has since explored in books about other sports, as well as work (The Inner Game of Work) and stress — comes down to prioritizing the joy of learning over the measurement of outcomes. To the extent that we can maintain an open and nonjudgmental focus on the present moment rather than ultimate results, we are better able to develop competency and more likely to enjoy the process.
Gallwey’s “bounce — hit” approach is what educators might call “student-centered” — that is, learning that adapts itself to each student’s unique talents and circumstances and which emphasizes competency over so-called objective measures of achievement, such as standardized test scores.
Paying bonuses for failure
Google’s People Operations department (affectionately known as “POPS”) obsessively gathers and analyzes data, which have shown that learning, collaboration, and fun are significant factors in the attraction and retention of successful employees. The company emphasizes learning over mastery by famously allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to the pursuit of passions that do not have an obvious connection to the company’s products. Google also celebrates productive failure, nurturing a culture in which employees “accept the inevitability of failures, and continue iterating until [they] get things right.”, and its parent company, Alphabet, houses an innovation lab that pays employees bonuses for killing off pet ideas that don’t show promise.
We practically deify the companies, like Google, that foster “bounce — hit” cultures in which employees are valued and encouraged to explore widely and dare big. We do not see a greater representation of these companies in the world because we suffer from a shortage of visionary leaders willing to take chances, as well as a shortage of passionate innovators willing to follow them into the vast unknown. One straightforward way to explain the reasons for that shortage is that we teach our children at a certain age to start valuing outcomes rather than creativity and competency — we teach them to play little league basketball to win rather than to learn the game and have fun.
I could qualify or shade multiple aspects of that last sentence. But I will not. Because the truth is that we are all complicit in this — I am complicit in this. If I am honest, I will admit that I would not have written that Gundy-esque letter to the director of my county parks and recreation department if my son’s team had won the game or lost in a less humiliating manner. I did not question the underlying intent of the program out of a pure desire to promote sportsmanship and the development of children, but rather because my child was on the receiving end of a bad beating. And my compulsion to make it better arose from a deeply held belief — imparted to me in my own childhood — that to be good and worthy is to be victorious in an immediately measurable, perceptible, and publicly lauded way.
I will not cease to be a basketball fan. (There is something soothing about sports — the clarity of roles, the relatively unambiguous nature of the results, and the finality of the buzzer.) Further, I do not here advocate for a social order that does not allow for some measure of success and failure. I believe that our greatest advancements are fueled in part by the healthy competition that capitalism — tempered with compassion — tends to generate. Rather, my hope is that we might consider how the typical process of inducting children into the world of competition could be neutralizing their natural capacity to perceive failure and success as interdependent and complementary. By placing an outsized emphasis on the importance of measurable success, we might be foregoing the gifts of failure, the greatest of which is human progress. My hope is that each of us might pause to think more deeply about those two words — success and failure — and consider that they are both essential to the development of our children into adults who are equipped to challenge what they see and aspire to a better world.
Despite the fact that no score is kept in 6–8 year old little league basketball in my county, everyone to a person knows who won. Yet, the post-game conversations are dominated by talk of the exciting plays, the unexpected feats of teamwork, and each player’s distinctive contributions. Somehow, the fact that the score is not displayed manages to shift the focus elsewhere: to learning, camaraderie, and enjoyment of the game.