Sports, Kids, and Pattern Matching

Posted on March 25, 2012


My friends and I are all passionate about sports. We all love to play basketball, football, tennis, golf, etc. We also follow sports passionately, even making the trip down to baseball’s spring training in Arizona every year.

Now that we’re all starting to have kids we’ve started to think about how to approach sports with our kids. For the most part we see playing sports as beneficial, but there are some downsides. More and more, I get nervous about the downsides.

Sports, unlike many things, is built on competition. There’s a winner and a loser. Both teams can’t be winners. Although there are other examples of this in society (e.g. elections), more often than not you’re not faced with a situation where there is just one winner. Sure, if you’re applying for a job then there may be just one winner for that job, but there are likely many other jobs out there, and, if there aren’t, then you always have the option of starting your own company and creating more jobs.

My point being that, although sports provide a lot of opportunities for kids to learn valuable life skills as well as get exercise and develop their physical capabilities, they also provide a lot of opportunity for kids to develop some of the worst habits that competition can breed.

I’ve started to think that one strategy might be to focus on understanding the game, rather than simply scoring goals. I’m not entirely sure how to encourage a child to look for the patterns that exist in the game, but if I can figure out how to do so, then it may be a much better way to approach sports than the competitive angle.

Pattern recognition can be very rewarding. Patterns are never obvious, so discovering one is an accomplishment. They also tend to build on each other, so once you’ve discovered one pattern other patterns become more accessible. Eventually you realize you have a much deeper understanding of the activity than you did before. That progress can be highly motivating.

This approach would also draw the focus away from individual skills, which I think is where the majority of attention is paid in sports, especially at young ages. If the kids were doing their best to figure out what makes some one a skilled player and what makes a team more effective and how those things work together then I think it could help develop team work more effectively.

That said, I have no idea how to encourage this. I guess I would start with just having the kids play as much as possible and pay attention to what they think works and doesn’t work (e.g. “If I kick the ball harder it’s harder for me to control it”).

It may not work at all, but I think it’s an approach worth trying over simply focusing on winning and losing. There are useful lessons there. Learning to deal with failure effectively is a great lesson as is persistence in the face of adversity, but they too often get lost in the focus on individual talent. With pattern recognition there may be an opportunity to provide another goal that is even more practical in life compared to just winning the game.

Anyways, just some thoughts.