Why We Play Sports: Winning Motivates, But Can Backfire, Too
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
No question, a victory when you play a sport can make your day - and not just for kids. It turns out that winning may be a key factor in keeping people active in sports in adulthood. A recent poll that NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a solid majority of adults who play sports say winning is important to them. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more in our summer series on sports and health.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Growing up, sports was always really important to Erik Johanson. He played baseball in high school and college, and being good at the game made a big difference.
ERIK JOHANSON: I was always one of the best players on my team probably until I got to college when I would say I was just average. But I was on the team in college, so I think that indicates that I was reasonably good at the sport.
NEIGHMOND: Today, Johanson's 31. He plays baseball now and then, but mostly he plays ice hockey on a very competitive hockey team.
JOHANSON: It's a group of guys that have been together in the Philadelphia area for almost a decade, and we play together every year. We play other teams like us that have been together for years - all got together after college and formed a team.
NEIGHMOND: Johanson's team - team Orange, named simply for the color of the uniforms - is pretty good. When they play, they play to win.
JOHANSON: It was always very important to me. And I was always actually - to be honest with you - frustrated when it didn't seem as important to everyone else. Winning was definitely a large part of the reason why I played sports.
NEIGHMOND: In our poll, 85 percent of adults who play sports also say their performance is important to them. And 56 percent say winning is important while 54 percent say that they always or often push themselves to their physical limits. Team Orange vied for the lead championship last year. They didn't win, but Johanson's the first to say that for him the drive to win is as strong as ever.
JOHANSON: But I think if you had that experience when you were younger, I mean, that experience feels really good - to win. And I don't think you ever really lose that and I think, especially when life gets more complicated as you grow up, you still need it. You have fewer opportunities for it because it's not such a key part of your life anymore, so you seek it out.
GEORGE GMELCH: Winning makes the game more fun.
NEIGHMOND: For pretty much everyone, says University of San Francisco anthropologist George Gmelch.
GMELCH: Just look at people's reactions after a softball game. They've had a better time when they win, particularly if you've contributed to the team's success.
NEIGHMOND: But Gmelch says the need to compete and the drive to win diminishes over time. For example, he says it's a lot easier to coach a team of 40-year-olds than a team of 20-year-olds.
GMELCH: The young guys that are the most competitive and care the most about winning and are most likely to make a fuss over a call; and as players get older, they're less likely to be troublesome.
NEIGHMOND: As competitiveness wanes - and that may be one reason why interest in sports declines with age. Our poll shows 40 percent of adults between 18 and 25 say they play sports, but by the time people are 26 to 29, only 1 in 4 still play. And for the over-50 crowd, just 20 percent say they play sports. People cite health problems and injuries as reasons for not playing sports. They also say they have less time and less interest. Sports psychology coach Greg Chertok says that can have a lot to do with how winning and losing were perceived during childhood.
GREG CHERTOK: Did we view losing as a blow to our self-esteem? Did losing guarantee a verbally-abusive car ride home with Dad? Did losing mean a 10-minute diatribe from your coach after the game?
NEIGHMOND: Kids don't begin playing sports with the sole intention of winning, says Chertok. That's often an adult-imposed goal.
CHERTOK: The main goals of youth sport are fun and safety and personal growth and development where you're kind of character building. But when the coach puts a kind of rigid, inflexible emphasis on winning, that can be kind of off-putting to children and kind of confusing and also very unenjoyable.
NEIGHMOND: And Chertok says that can have a negative and lifelong impact on one's commitment and enjoyment of sports. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.