Emphasis On The Need To Win Not The Key To Long-Term Success

April 08, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Most American children know that winning is important. But coaches and parents can do more for young athletes -- especially those in early adolescence -- by reducing the pressure to win and giving them other ways to define success, say two sport psychologists who have advised youth, college and Olympic programs.

Only a small number of adolescents are motivated by a climate that says winning alone is what matters, say Darren Treasure and Glyn Roberts, professors at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and the University of Illinois, respectively. Almost all, however, respond positively to a climate that focuses first on mastering skills and self-improvement, while still being competitive.

Their conclusions come from a series of studies of youth in sports, the latest on 274 adolescent girls (average age of 14) at a one-week, college-sponsored summer basketball camp. An article on that study will be published in the next issue of the International Journal of Sport Psychology.

Treasure is a professor of sport and exercise psychology who also works as a sport psychology consultant with several U. of I. varsity teams and with the United States Soccer Federation. Roberts is a professor of kinesiology who has developed this line of research since starting it at the U. of I. two decades ago. He also is a past sport psychology consultant to U.S. gymnastics teams.

Even when working with elite professional athletes, Treasure said he emphasizes a focus on mastery over winning as the most effective means to success. The intent, he said, is "to get them focusing on things that, if they do them correctly, will increase their probability that they will, in fact, win."

With youth in early adolescence, however, the emphasis on mastery is even more important, because it's an age when many will start dropping out of sports, if they're not cut first, including many with potential to be good athletes, Treasure said.

Up until about the age of 12, children see effort and ability as almost the same, he noted; after that age, "they understand that effort is important, but will only help them up to their current level of ability." As a result, they're more likely to compare themselves to others and get discouraged.

In a climate focused on the need to win, and only on the better players, "that's where you get the dropouts," Roberts said. "They get the idea very quickly that they are not integral to that team."

One reason that's a shame, Treasure said, is because "the kid who's great at 12 may not be the kid who's great at 24," and vice versa. Kids who might have been good drop out before they can find out, and others, accustomed to winning, drop out when they find they can no longer dominate.

"A mastery-oriented coach," Roberts said, "tries to optimize the motivation of all of them knowing that if you keep more people involved, the pool of talent at the higher levels is going to be much better. With the adolescent growth spurt, you never know who's going to be the super athlete."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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