- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

No matter what takes place on the field, grade-school softballer Madeline Butler always goes home a winner.

Of course, so do her opponents.

An 8-year-old from Ellicott City, Md., Butler plays in the Howard County Youth Programs softball league, which doesn’t keep score for girls 8 and under.

“It’s nice,” said Andrea Butler, 38, Madeline’s mother and media relations director at Baltimore’s National Aquarium. “There’s no pressure to win or lose. I don’t have to console her after a loss, or hype her up if they won. I can just talk to her about how much fun she had. That’s very important in the early years.”

Howard County isn’t unusual. From Maryland to Massachusetts, youth sports leagues across the nation are leaving the scoreboard blank, de-emphasizing competition in favor of skill-building, sportsmanship and — take heart, Stuart Smalley — self-esteem.

The goal? In the absence of, well, goals? Encourage athletic participation. And discourage the adult violence and boorish behavior that has marred everything from Little League to junior hockey in recent years.

“Kids shouldn’t be playing adult games,” said Scott Lancaster, senior director of youth development for the National Football League. “It’s just not fair to them. There’s a glaring need for radical change in the whole structure of how kids learn and play sports.”

The NFL’s Junior Player Development camps — one of which will take place at H.D. Woodson High in the District this month — epitomize the kinder, gentler approach to youth sports.

Designed to teach tackle football basics to boys and girls ages 12 to 14, the six-week camps stress learning and fun over competition and results.

Unlike many youth football programs, the camps are open to children of all sizes and skill levels, even those who never have played the game.

“In our program, everybody plays,” said Lancaster, also the author of the book “Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kids.” “There’s no scoreboard. No angry parents. Everybody walks away happy.”

In the NFL camps, each child serves as a team captain, creates practice drills for their peers and learns to play every position on the field.

Likewise, players in the Howard County softball league rotate positions between innings. Catchers, for example, trade places with shortstops, who in turn shift to the outfield.

By contrast, Lancaster said, traditional youth sports programs often pigeonhole children into specific roles before they have a chance to learn the rudiments of the game.

“Kids don’t like it when a coach just says, ‘You’re big, so you’re going to be a linebacker, a center,’” he said. “It’s traditional in our society to go to a football or baseball tryout and it’s a draft situation.

“You’ve never been taught anything, but you’re labeled from that point on with what you can and can’t do. That damages a lot of kids psychologically. You start with a defeatist attitude.”

Though teams in the NFL camp ultimately square off in eight-on-eight scrimmages, they don’t keep track of touchdowns. Or even first downs.

Instead, players capture individual points for properly executing fundamental skills such as blocking and dropping back.

Picture a Little Leaguer earning kudos for making a well-placed throw to first base — even as a run crosses the plate.

“There’s no score, but there’s individual progression and scores going on,” Lancaster said. “The kids are having fun. The only thing that’s missing is the parent going home and having the satisfaction of saying we won or lost.”

In part, no-score sports are intended to lure the increasingly sedentary PlayStation generation off its ever-expanding collective keister.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 13 percent of the nation’s children and adolescents were overweight in 1999. Meanwhile, only 29 percent of all children and adolescents attend daily physical education classes, down from 42 percent in 1991.

Youth sports can fill the void, said Jim Thompson, founder of Positive Coaching Alliance, a California-based youth sports organization.

“When kids stay in sports, lots of good things happen,” Thompson said. “The key is to get kids to love sports so that they come back the next year, and the next.”

One problem: A 2001 survey by Sports Illustrated for Kids reported that 70 percent of children quit sports by age 13 because they were no longer having fun. Lancaster cites similar figures.

“Probe behind that, and kids say, ‘I’m not getting to play, I’m sitting on the bench there’s too much pressure,’” Thompson said. “What causes kids to drop out is an emphasis on the scoreboard.

“It’s like an adult having a job where you can’t please the boss, no matter what. You’re liable to jump to another job.”

Andrea Butler can relate. Last year, her daughter Madeline played her first year of soccer in a league that kept score.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Madeline spent most of her time watching her team’s best player, the daughter of a former soccer star, monopolize the ball.

Though the team was successful — largely thanks to the aforementioned star player’s prodigious scoring touch — Madeline quickly lost interest in the sport.

“Scoring, winning and losing aren’t an issue to her,” Andrea Butler said. “She just likes being out there. But because she didn’t get much action and didn’t feel as good as the superstars out there, she was discouraged from playing again.”

By eliminating wins and losses, no-score proponents also hope to curb the headline-making adult violence and abuse that have seeped into even the lowest levels of youth sports.

Last month, a woman in Wakefield, Mass., reportedly beat and kicked an 11-year-old boy for rooting against her son’s baseball team. During a post-game handshake between two teams of 7- and 8-year-olds in 2001, a referee at a youth basketball game in Fayetteville, Ga., slashed a coach with a knife.

Also in 2001, Thomas Junta of Reading, Mass., was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for beating another man to death following an argument during their sons’ hockey practice.

In the Sports Illustrated for Kids survey, 74 percent of the 3,000 respondents said they’d seen out-of-control adults at their games.

Why the bad behavior? According to retired Penn State professor David Dimnick, an expert on youth sports and sports in education, the answer lies in an obsessive-compulsive youth sports culture that places 9-year-olds on traveling baseball teams and values victory over everything else.

“We can talk about all that philosophical mumbo jumbo like good clean effort and striving for mutual excellence,” he said. “But Nike had a commercial a few years ago that said the silver medal is not second place. It’s the first loser. And that’s the attitude in society.

“I played sports all though Little League and high school. We wanted to win, sure, but I don’t ever remember the pressure to win that these kids face.”

Former NFL quarterback Don McPherson said that pressure is exacerbated by parents who see youth sports as a stepping stone to financial gain — either through future college scholarships or one-in-a-million professional careers, a la high school basketball phenom LeBron James.

“A lot of parents are living what I call the lie of sports,” said McPherson, now the director of the sports leadership institute at Adelphi University. “The reality is that you have a better chance of hitting the lottery.”

Butler recalled a conversation she had with a friend at one of her daughter Abby’s junior basketball games.

“My friend said, ‘Well our daughter’s not doing so well academically, so we hope she gets better at basketball so she can get a scholarship,’” Butler said. “And I’m thinking, ‘we’re talking about the fifth grade here.’”

While Butler believes no-score youth sports have merit, others disagree, contending that winner-less competitions fail to prepare children for a world where “Dog Eat Dog” is more than just a skin-saturated, prime-time game show.

Six years ago, the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Organization announced that its tournaments for under-10 teams would no longer have winners or losers. Instead, the “non-result-oriented competition” would hand out the same prize for every team, simply for participating.

The announcement touched off a flurry of op-ed hand wringing, as a Boston Globe columnist labeled it “political correctness run amok” and CBS radio commentator Charles Osgood lashed out during his national broadcast.

“You might as well take away the ball,” Osgood sneered. “Someone could knock his eye out. … With nothing to kick around, kids could get hurt swinging those legs wildly through the air. Better have them sit down.

“How about schools with no tests, no grades? That way we can really prepare the kids for the future. No expectations, no goals, no drive to succeed, no job possibilities.”

Jen Singer agrees. A former Boston University soccer player who lives in Kinnelon, N.J., she coached her 6-year-old son, Nicholas, on a kindergarten soccer team last fall.

While Singer is sympathetic to the idea of de-pressurizing youth sports — she calls 8-year-old traveling teams “mind-boggling” — she made a point of keeping score during team scrimmages.

“I always made a big deal when they scored,” said Singer, who has written on parenting for national magazines and is the creator of a Web site devoted to stay-at-home mothers. “I even taught them to yell ‘gooooooooal’ like the guy on Univision.

“I think that’s the point of the game. Otherwise, it shelters them. In a capitalist society, you have to learn to go for the goal, try to win.”

According to Ellicott City youth basketball and soccer coach Rick Shelton, scoreboards also teach children a lesson of equal (if converse) importance: How to lose.

An engineer at the John Hopkins University applied physics laboratory, Shelton has spent the last six years coaching both of Butler’s daughters and three of his own — some of them of them in both sports.

Reflecting on his experience, he said the problem in youth sports isn’t so much keeping score, but rather losing perspective.

“A lot of this depends on the coach,” he said. “My attitude has always been win some, lose some, and we have to learn to be sportsmen regardless of the result. If you don’t keep score you can’t teach that or experience that.”

Shelton added that doing away with scoreboards might not produce the intended effect.

“Kids will still know who’s winning and losing,” he said. “And the parents who are watching, they’ll know it, too. It’s kind of human nature.”

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