086: Playing to Win: How does playing sports impact children?

Individual sports or competitive?  Recreational or organized?  Everyone gets a trophy or just the winners?

And why do sports in the first place?  Granted there are some physical benefits, but don’t we also hope that our children will learn some kind of lessons about persistence and team work that will stand them in good stead in the future?

In this interview with Dr. Hilary Levy Friedman we discuss her book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, the advantages that sports can confer on children (which might not be the ones you expect!), as well as what children themselves think about these issues.

Read Full Transcript

Jen: 01:23

Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo podcast, and today’s episode actually comes to us courtesy of a question from my husband who said “You should really do an episode on the benefits of sports for children.” And I said, sure and I said about researching it and I actually stumbled on Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman’s book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and I really got more than I bargained for with that book. Dr. Friedman has studied not just the advantages and drawbacks associated with participation in sport as an activity, but also much broader sociological issues like how participation in sports helped children to increase what she calls Competitive Kid Capital and can actually impact the child’s academic and lifelong success. So, Dr. Friedman received her Bachelor’s Degree from Harvard and Master’s in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Sociology from Princeton University. She’s currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University and is the mother of a preschooler and a first grader. Welcome Dr. Friedman.

Dr. Friedman: 02:24

Thanks for having me.

Jen: 02:25

You’re right there in the thick of it with us.

Dr. Friedman: 02:27


Jen: 02:29

So, I want to kind of start at the beginning or what seems like the beginning to me here because decades ago it seems as though it was far more common for children to engage in really unstructured outdoor playtime rather than organized sports. I’m curious as to your thoughts on what has shifted here and what do you think children are missing out by not having as much of this unstructured outdoor play?

Dr. Friedman: 02:51

Well, it depends what time we’re talking about. I mean if we’re talking about 200 years ago, I mean kids were working in the fields and 50 years after that, they were working in factories. So about a hundred years ago, 1918, we’re seeing the formation of kids’ athletic leagues in particular and also some other organized activities, but it’s really more of like a popular myth or a misconception that kids use to spend all this time playing and having free time. The 1950s, which is that time we sort of pulled up is this Utopian time of kids playing in the streets and playing stickball and baseball and all of that is more the anomaly rather than the norm. So, today it is absolutely true that kids spend so much more time, especially, it depends on what age exactly we’re talking about, but they spend a lot of time in organized play, not just in organized sports, but we just have to think about the ways in which that took a different shape historically in American childhood.

Jen: 03:56

Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s less that they were always able to engage in this unstructured play and whether that was sort of a phenomenon of its time just like the structured play as a phenomenon of its time today.

Dr. Friedman: 04:07


Jen: 04:08

Do you think there are unique benefits associated with that unstructured time that maybe children are not able to realize today through the structured play that happens?

Dr. Friedman: 04:17

Again, I think it depends on the age group we’re talking about, so I’ll limit it to elementary school aged kids just because that’s the age group that Playing to Win focuses upon. So, I think certainly kids are working out all kinds of ideas, both intellectual but also social and moral when they play together and come up with their own games. Now, I don’t think that having organized play is mutually exclusive to that either. So, I’ll just give you one example in particular, part of Playing to Win is also about chess, not just about sports. And so I remember being at a chess summer camp for a few weeks and observing there and meeting families and the kids would play chess and then there’d be a recess time and then they’d play a little bit more chess and then have lunch and then have like a much longer period of recess and go out to a playground. And they came up with all these games that they invented on the playground and with pool noodles even though there wasn’t a pool nearby and they had rules. It was very elaborate. So yes, they were spending time unstructured play as well, but they also had this space to be creative, workout rules, work together. So, I think it is possible for both of those things to coexist and both of those things are important for kids as well.

Jen: 05:35

Oh, that’s fascinating. In reading your book, I sort of had the impression that the kids were sort of locked up in a conference hall for 10 hours at a stretch playing chess.

Dr. Friedman: 05:44

Well, sometimes at the tournaments it feels much more like that. But that’s again not like the everyday experience of doing this.

Jen: 05:53

Yeah. Okay. All right, so I’m curious because I think that this is where most of our minds go and certainly my husband’s mind was going when he asked the question, what are some of the more immediate benefits for children participating in organized sporting activities?

Dr. Friedman: 06:08

So, immediately obviously there is the physical fitness aspect, there’s also the teamwork and those are things that you can get by just playing at school or playing recreationally. I think when you up it to the more competitive experience, that’s when other lessons kick in as well. So, there’s pretty much if you have to think about it, but there are very few sporting experiences where there’s not some element of a time limit or some sense of time and rules you have to adhere to. So again, you can get that somewhat from doing it recreationally, but when you’re doing it competitively and by that I mean it’s organized, adults are running it and records are kept, then you get something much different out of that experience. Performing under pressure for example.

Jen: 06:54

Yeah. Okay. So, we’re not necessarily talking about elite levels of participation. This is your kid’s little league is the same because adults are running it, they are providing the timekeeping and the score keeping and so the children are participating under some time pressure.

Dr. Friedman: 07:10

You’re exactly correct. Yeah, I mean I think to be more specific, what I’m talking about here, when I say competitive is a league where you have to try out or not everybody is guaranteed a spot and that sort of thing. So most little league is, I would consider recreational, but if there’s an all-star league or any of these what we call in the US travel teams that kids are not elite, they might have some dreams of becoming elite someday, but they certainly are not elite at this moment.

Jen: 07:37

Right. Okay. So, there are a number of other sort of health benefits as well that I was reading about things like health and bone density, lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease and diabetes and these kinds of things as well. Do you see those as important benefits associated with a lot of different kinds of sporting activities as well as with unstructured playtime?

Dr. Friedman: 07:59

Definitely. But there’s a caveat there which is that when anything becomes too competitive, there’s a health risk too. So we see a lot in increasing number of youth sports injuries. I mean obviously concussions are the most well-known example at this point in time, but at other moments there’s been concerns about different joints, elbows, knees, increasing rates of girls who have particular types of knee injuries. We’re seeing more and more overused injuries because kids are specializing at younger ages and so yes, there are these positive benefits and then you get to this inflection point and you’re like, wait, there might actually be some bad physical things that go along with that.

Jen: 08:38

Yeah, and this is just a hypothesis here that I’m generating on the fly, but I’m wondering if this recreational level of sport is actually better for a child’s health than specializing and maybe I’ve heard of people who are very good at sports will say, oh yeah, I played three different sports until I was 12 and then I specialized and maybe that that general level of fitness actually serves them better than early specialization. Are you aware of any research on that?

Dr. Friedman: 09:01

Yes, there’s definitely a lot of anecdotal evidence by those who are professional like you mentioned, like Tom Brady famously says, he played all kinds of sports until he was much older and so there’s this cross training idea. You’re not just working the same muscle or muscle groups over and over again. So, you’re developing other types of skills too. So, let’s say you were really into football, but if you play soccer too, then you’re developing the foot-eye coordination in addition to the hand-eye coordination. So, that’s definitely a big thing and there’s been a lot of research by those who focus on Sports Medicine and Pediatric Sports Medicine that thinks that this is quite important or again from the opposite side, like the increasing number of overuse injuries that are being seen, you can assume that if you’re not just using the same muscles over and over again, that there would be a different outcome.

Jen: 09:55

Okay. So, there are some really beneficial aspects of sports for children. There are also some potential issues with doing a certain kind of sport too much. So, setting aside the physical thing from it, which I think is where most of us go immediately when we think about sports. Let’s talk about some of the psychological and sociological issues. So, the first one that comes to mind for me is what is up with the participation trophies for every child. I think this is more of an American phenomenon than one that seen in other countries and I’m wondering firstly if that’s the case and secondly would it not be better for a child to just learn how to be disappointed that they didn’t always win something?

Dr. Friedman: 10:36

Yeah. So, participation trophies are a major issue and this notion that everybody deserves something and on the one hand you can see that a child did a whole season, put in the work, kept their commitment and so it’s nice to have a celebration, right? So that could be a pizza party and it doesn’t have to involve an actual sort of tacky gold trophy because most of them are actually not very attractive and ended up being dust gatherers as opposed to a team goes to a tournament and actually wins first place and that has a lot more meaning. I’ve interviewed kids about this and they’re under no illusions that a participation trophy means like you won first place in a tournament. What I will say about participation trophies and from when I interviewed the kids for playing to win, the first one they got meant something to them and continue to mean something.

Dr. Friedman: 11:34

But the subsequent ones didn’t mean much at all. So, it does appear to be more of an American phenomenon. We certainly see it in other places as well as some aspects of American culture have spread to other countries. But if everybody gets a trophy, like what does it mean? The Incredibles 2 just came out this year and is now just recently released to Blu-ray and DVD and all of that. But the original Incredibles, they have a line in there that says if everybody is special, then nobody is special. So I think that there’s a perception that that’s what the participation trophies mean for a lot of families. Then also I had a lot of parents say like, wow, I paid a lot of money for like that dollar and thirty cent trophy, it’s so cheap, but I actually paid a lot of money for it.

Dr. Friedman: 12:23

So, people are not dumb, kids are not dumb and they understand that that doesn’t mean that you’re a champion, let’s say.

Jen: 12:33

So, why do we keep doing it then if the kids see through it and the parents see through it and I think you called it something like parceling out the honor and making every age group at certain subset and within that age group, they’re best of this and best of that. And so why do we keep doing this if everybody sees through it and realizes that it’s not really real?

Dr. Friedman: 12:52

Yeah. So the carving up of honor is a little bit different because at least that is based on some sort of achievement. So, I call it the carving up of honor because now we give prizes, the first place to eight year olds, born in the month of November practice only three hours a week.

Dr. Friedman: 13:10

So, there are very specific groups and this is born out of this desire, let’s say to say my child is a champion, my child’s the national champion of x, y, or z. Where does that come from? That comes from this trend toward quantification that we’ve seen, the ability to measure achievement and the extracurricular space that then is highly linked to the college admissions process and so sure these things aren’t happening until you’re 18, but there’s this trickle-down effect, particularly in the upper middle class community that we start seeing at younger and younger ages.

Jen: 13:49

Okay. So, staying with the idea of just for a minute longer about the idea of becoming elite athletes and do parents really start their children playing sports thinking my kid’s going to be the next Mia Hamm, my kid’s going to be the next Beckham because it seems though that’s not very likely to happen.

Dr. Friedman: 14:07

No. I mean I think that there has been a push and people are becoming more sophisticated in terms of the notion that, first of all being a professional athlete, those odds are super, super, super slim making it to the Olympics in most fields. Odds are super, super slim but people have thought for a while, oh, but I’ll get a college scholarship and that will make it worth it. But in fact like the number of NCAA athletes who have a scholarship is incredibly small because it’s only Division I schools and then only a certain number of Division I schools and then even within that group, the number of students that got a “full ride” to be a college athlete as a percentage of all collegiate athletes, let alone all high school athletes is extremely small. It’s like 4%.

Dr. Friedman: 14:59

So, I think there was this idea for a long time and I think there’s some truth to participating in athletics helps get you a spot at certain types of institutions. So, Division III Liberal Arts Schools where the student body is much smaller, but they’re still filling a huge number of sports teams and they have to have students to fill those roster slots. Sure, like athletics can give you a boost. There’s other ways too, if you play a certain type of sport, let’s say Squash or you do Crew that’s going to send a particular signal about your family’s class background. So, there are all kinds of ways in which sports can boost your ability to get into college. But it’s not necessarily gonna get you dollars to go to college. In fact, many of these places there are no college scholarship, so you’re paying money to go there. But it’s expanding the world of possibilities for some students in terms of getting into more selective schools.

Jen: 15:59

Okay. So, when you ask parents what are their goals for enrolling their young children in sports, what are they telling you?

Dr. Friedman: 16:09

Yeah, so I mean, I think there are, and I definitely met parents who are thinking more explicitly about the college process, but more than anything, most parents want to help their child find what they love, what they’re passionate about. I know that some people don’t like this word passion, but to find an activity or a setting that gives a child an identity, a social group, all of those things where they’re going to be able to excel and find themselves and feel like they belong and so parents, especially parents of elementary school age kids are exposing their kids to a lot of different activities and a lot of different sporting activities and kind of seeing what sticks.

Jen: 16:54

Okay. So parents, their stated goals, I think you realized they’re a little bit different than what might be some of their unstated goals. You’ve touched on this a little bit with the term Competitive Kid Capital, so can you tell us a little bit about what are some of these unstated reasons that are sort of underlying the issues that parents will actually talk about?

Dr. Friedman: 17:18

Yeah. So, first of all I mentioned the upper middle class, most of the families that I met would be considered middle class and many of them upper middle class. And so these are families that are doing well financially, but aren’t going to have necessarily a trust fund to pass onto their kids, right? So they’re there by dint of hard work, motivation, advanced degrees, like an MD, a JD and MBA, so any of these kind of professional degrees. And you can’t pass that degree onto your kids, right? So, I always actually used to use the example of Donald Trump, like his company was a public company and you can’t just pass that onto your kids, right? And so they have to go through some…

Jen: 18:01

It turns out maybe you can…

Dr. Friedman: 18:03

Yeah, maybe you can, but you have go through some credentialing process to do that. And so what you can pass onto your kids if you’re a doctor is learning how to manage a busy schedule and how to be competitive, how to lose and bounce back and keep fighting. And so these competitive activities and competitive sports in particular, and you could argue for both boys and girls, but there’s a big impact on women as well here is a way to do that. And it costs money to do these activities, right? Like they’re not free. They’re very class based to do these travel sports in particular and so this is like a gate-keeping way of teaching kids these skills that hopefully will have these much longer term outcomes.

Jen: 18:53

Okay. So, you’ve mentioned college as a potential outcome and the fact that there could be some money there but maybe not. I’m curious about even beyond college, what connections do you see between longer term career success and success in sports as a child?

Dr. Friedman: 19:09

Well, so absolutely those who play college sports have different labor market outcomes. There’s an interesting book called Privilege by another sociologist, Lauren Rivera that looks at the hiring practices of major law firms, management consultants, investment banks, sorts of high prestige occupations and they still care about like did you play, were you on a team in college, right? Because that shows your dedication, your like sort of willing to put yourself through the ringer and be in like mental and physical discomfort and like work through that. And that’s pretty powerful, right? And those are like high income occupations and so we see it through college, through graduate school and then into the labor market. So, I think that there is a lot there. Even parents I met, it’s not sports, but again going back to this chess example, I would say, oh, when you go to the big tournaments or like what you mentioned locked away in these halls, but when you go and you see all these kids playing, like that reminds me when I took the LSAT or when I sat for the bar and there was all this stuff happening around me and there was this time pressure. And so there’s definitely this connection being made to later in life.

Jen: 20:24

Yeah. One anecdote from your book really stuck with me. You talked with a mother who I think worked for Merrill Lynch, one of the investment banks and she said if I interview somebody for a job and I find out they worked on a hockey team, then boom, they’re in. It’s sort of a code language, isn’t it, for what kind of qualities that person has. And we think as though because they got on a hockey team, they are hardworking and they are going to be a big team player, but ultimately there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot of privilege there as indicated by the title of the book that you mentioned and so I think you actually wrote an article in The Atlantic on this and we sort of have this idea and this narrative in our society about being a meritocracy and if you’re the best person then you’ll win. If you’re the best person for that job at Merrill Lynch, then you’ll win. But it seems to me as though if hockey is an expensive sport and traveling with the team seems like an expensive sport then what we’re doing is we’re weeding out the people who can’t afford to do that and we’re saying, you know what, these kinds of jobs where you have to be a team player at Merrill Lynch later in life, they’re just not going to be open to you. Do you say it in the same way?

Dr. Friedman: 21:36

Yes. It’s definitely a concern and I think, there’s so much talk about inequality these days and doesn’t matter what zip code you were born into and obviously it does matter and in the first instance, of course we should care if kids don’t have the proper nutrition and they’re getting nutrition at school and if they don’t have books, but even past those things, we see different outcomes for kids. And I just think that there’s this sort of unwritten curriculum, there is this way in the after school hours that inequality is being reinforced and yes, it’s harder to measure than a test score, let’s say, but it’s really meaningful and it has this long-term impact. So, I have a lot of concerns and look I’m a mom and I think about what activities I put my own kids into, but I think it’s important that we be aware of these things and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them if we can for our kids, but we should also think about other ways that kids can get access to the same opportunities. So, like I mentioned, even within sports there’s a hierarchy, right? And so most schools have a football team, most schools have a basketball team, but most schools don’t have a Lacrosse team for example, and they don’t have a field hockey team. And so what does that mean then?

Jen: 22:57

So just to make that explicit, I think what you’re saying is that Lacrosse is a sport that rich people play essentially, right? If I’m going to a college and say, yeah, I played Lacrosse, if I’m not allowed to indicate on my application form what race I am or any aspect of whether my family can afford it, I’m communicating something about myself to that person who’s judging my application.
Dr. Friedman: 23:23 100%.

Jen: 23:24

Yeah. Okay. So, I’m actually planning a series of episodes coming up that is going to explore the intersection of race and parenting and child development much more broadly. So it’s sort of interesting that it reared its head in an episode on sports and wanted to touch on it and we’ll probably come back to it in those series of episodes. So, I want to move on a little bit to the idea of competition and I want to quote a little bit from the book, it says, “The desire to dampen overt competition in school classrooms as part of the self-esteem movement that started in the 1960s. Self-esteem movement focused on building up children’s confidence and talents without being negative or comparing them to others as the movement did not reach outside activities such as sports, private organizations rush to fill the void. Parents increasingly wanted more competitive opportunities for their children and were willing to pay for it.”

Jen: 24:11

So, it made me immediately think back to an episode that we did on self-esteem a while ago where we found that parents actually shouldn’t bother trying to increase their children’s self-esteem because there’s no evidence that it causes better life outcomes. So where I’m going with this is schools apparently were trying not to compare children, although I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case anymore, but parents want competition. But competition actually drives me batty. So my daughter was four and she actually tells me she loves winning and so when she wins the race to the door or to finish our oatmeal first, then I’ll just kind of say, but does it really matter? And so now she is saying I was first and it doesn’t really matter. So she’s not doing any sports at the moment, but if she were, it seems as though I’d be trying to teach her a really fine balance between being competitive in this one aspect of her life, but not having it carry over to our home life where it drives me crazy.

Jen: 25:06

So, where do you take all of this?

Dr. Friedman: 25:08

Okay, well there’s a lot in there. So first of all, if we think back historically to like the history of the educational system in the country, it actually wasn’t that long ago, it was like pretty much exactly a hundred years ago that they last made up high school compulsory that we have compulsory education.

Jen: 25:28


Dr. Friedman: 25:29

So again, some of this is explicit and some isn’t, but suddenly everyone’s going to have a high school degree. Well again, the upper class and the upper middle class and the middle class wants to find a way to distinguish themselves and so that’s where some of the after school hours come in. Maybe it’s in the service of college or in other ways and so once we get to the 50s, things become very competitive to get into college with the GI Bill. So many more people are going to college.

Dr. Friedman: 25:53

That’s when it starts mattering more what college you went to. So, when I write about that, the self-esteem movement in the 60s and 70s, it’s like people are stressed about the competition and yet like they want more competition because that is a way to distinguish yourself, especially when it comes to class background. So there’s that happening that I think is more at the institutional level. And then of course, I think what you’re saying in your example too is like there’s the individual level and even within the same families, personalities are quite different when it comes to competition and how one feels about competition and experiences it. So, there is this understanding now that you should be competitive in things but find a way for you to be competitive and make that work for your personality. So, some people are just naturally more competitive. Will make anything into a competition. Some people are much more artistic, don’t think about things in a competitive way. And yet we found ways to put this overlay on even an artistic activity because the institutional stuff matter so much. Because there’s this understanding that credentialing process matters. So, I know that was a big response, but you asked a big question.

Jen: 27:09

Yes, I did. It’s my fault. I brought it on myself. Yeah, totally get the historical stuff for sure. I guess as you’re saying about how competitiveness is valued, theoretically, I should be encouraging her to be competitive because it’s going to give her an advantage and we all want our children to be advantaged, right? But I also see what about the importance of bringing other people up as well and how do I walk that line?

Dr. Friedman: 27:36

To put a positive spin on that like this is, if you put your daughter in a sports activity, right? Like it’s also an opportunity to think about what does it mean to be a good sport, right? Which also means like being a good teammate that applies not just in a sports environment and so this is an opportunity to think about, well, it’s actually not nice to score 10 goals on somebody if you’re already winning or to have empathy if someone has lost and is crying and like that might be you, so it’s a chance to think about how do you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which I think is really important for kids to learn as well. And then they might be in the other shoes at some point because if you’re part of a team you can’t control everything either.

Jen: 28:24

Yeah, you’re not going to win all the time.

Dr. Friedman: 28:26

I think there are these other positive skills that you could turn it into a positive.

Jen: 28:32

Yeah. Okay. So, building on that a little bit in terms of how parents encourage their children to participate in these activities, I was very interested to see that a number of the parents that you studied had these really elaborate reward systems for their children and so you describe a particular girl called Lotty, which I assume is a pseudonym, who could accumulate different numbers of points for doing things like number of hours she studied for chess and how long she practice skating and doing well in a school assignment and not fighting with her sister and when she has thousands of these points she can get what she says are humongous rewards like a video game system and her mother you quoted as saying that “Lotty goes to school with people who have trust funds, but Lotty knows she has to do well in school because she needs to be on a track that she’s basically going to support herself.”

Jen: 29:23

“I’m raising my kid where she can be competitive in the marketplace” and then later she added. “I wanted her to be happy and balanced and not neurotic like me obviously.” And so we recently on the show actually did an interview with Alfie Kohn where we talked about how detrimental rewards can be for children’s intrinsic motivation to learn and do all kinds of other things as well as learning as well as the parent’s relationship with the child. And so I’m wondering if you’re at all worried about the children growing up doing these activities where they’re competing for awards not only in their sport, but also to get these points at home.

Dr. Friedman: 29:58

Well, it should be clear like I don’t know, especially now that like I have a first grader, I don’t know where that mom got the energy to do that.

Jen: 30:06

The point system?

Dr. Friedman: 30:58

Yeah. I don’t bargain about like the number of bedtime songs they get at night. So yes, I do worry about where the motivation is coming from and if it’s extrinsic or intrinsic. I mean what I can say for sure especially because we’ve talked a lot about the college admissions process is that there is a point where it needs to be authentic and that can come through whether someone has an authentic interest in something. And what’s interesting when you have this competitive overlay is that, I mean kids can basically self-sabotage themselves, right? Like they don’t have to do well on the tryout process and they can sort of deliberately not do well because they don’t want to participate and so if they’re really just focused on that trophy or that award and they’re not genuinely interested in doing something like it’s hard to sustain that like as we’ve mentioned, like through the pain and the exhaustion and the physical pain, mental pain and so I do think it depends on the age of the kids that you’re thinking about.

Dr. Friedman: 31:17

Obviously, parents are hugely influential, but I don’t think we should worry that every kid is going to have the exact same response. That was my long winded way of saying that.

Jen: 31:29

So, I’m just wondering from critical level what parents can do about this. Is it true to say if you have to reward your child for engaging in some kind of sport that maybe you should think again about whether your child should be doing that sport?

Dr. Friedman: 31:40

I mean not necessarily, right? I mean there are days when there are things that I love to do that I’m like, ugh, I don’t want to do this today, right? Like we all have those moments, we should only treat our kids like they’re only humans in the same way that we are. And like I have a bad day sometimes and that doesn’t mean like if I have a bad writing day or I’ve written about article, that doesn’t mean like…

Jen: 31:58

You never want to write again.

Dr. Friedman: 32:00

Sometimes I will reward myself with ice cream, you know? So, I think that if you have to do it like every single time, if you’re driving your kids to go to practice every single time, like yes, like that’s very problematic. If you think it’s to get them over the hump of something, like they’re scared for a particular competition or to try heading the ball in soccer, whatever it is, to reward them for doing it or to give them some motivation isn’t a bad thing but if it’s all the time that’s not good.

Dr. Friedman: 32:33

It’s almost like a too much. I’m a person that believes in moderation. So too much of anything is always going to be bad and too much deprivation is also a bad thing too. And so sometimes I just think like it’s not that complicated some of the parenting stuff and we should just use common sense, right? Like we don’t need a book to tell us like that just makes sense. If you have to bribe your kid every single time, that’s not a good thing.

Jen: 32:56

Yeah. A lot of these parents were doing it, right?

Dr. Friedman: 32:58

Right. But some of them were, not all of them, but some of them.

Jen: 33:01


Dr. Friedman: 33:02

But again, like if a kid doesn’t want to… we’re talking about sports, but if they don’t want to like go to dance, like they’re not going to try to do well to make a dance team or they’re not going to try to do well to be in the front row. There’s all kinds of ways that kids, again, kids have lots of agency I think. They are individuals, they are very powerful and have their voices and there are all kinds of things that they can do to exert their individual autonomy.

Jen: 33:27

And so maybe our job as parents is to look for those signals instead of just saying, oh, I want you to do this and I’m going to give you a video game if you do it, rather look and see what is the child trying to tell me about how much they want to do this by things like, you know, it doesn’t seem as though they self-sabotage.

Dr. Friedman: 33:49

It’s just to loop us back to the class conversation. Like this is truly the privilege of the upper middle class in this country that you can try to find what your kid enjoys most, right? Or like find their path. Because if you’re like worried about heating your house or you’re worried about like your kid going to school each day, like you’re not worried about, you’re not having those kinds of conversations. And so I know at times for people because we’re so segregated, not just by race, but mainly by income, it seems like everyone around you is doing this, but it’s so important to keep that perspective that like, this is not everybody. People around you, but this is not everybody.

Jen: 34:32

Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.

Dr. Friedman: 34:34

And I can say that I just finished teaching seminar that I teach first years at Brown called the After School Hours. So we just did team sports today. We’ll do individual sports later in the week and I have students from all over the country, all over the world. I have one student this year who grew up in Idaho and in his public school class he was one of nine students to graduate and that’s totally different from my student who graduated from an elite boarding school, right? So, their perspectives are quite different as well.

Jen: 35:06

Yeah. Okay. So, I was actually really interested to find in your book that you actually interviewed children. So many researchers who study children don’t take the time to talk to them and see what they think. And so what did you find about what children think about what their parents say about winning and competition compared to what their parents really mean? Do the children pick up on a discrepancy here?

Dr. Friedman: 35:30

Not as explicitly as that, but they definitely, they’re way more focused on the social aspects of the activities. And so that was really interesting to me. So the parents might be like, yeah, I want you to win, I want the team to win, I want you to get first place. And they’re like, yeah, but I love meeting kids who go to different schools like that’s my favorite thing. So that could be somewhat incompatible, right? If you’re prioritizing friendship over like being number one, not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that could be one interpretation. So, that was very interesting to me. I had not anticipated when I started interviewing the kids how important it would be to them.

Jen: 36:11

The friendship aspect of it?

Dr. Friedman: 36:13


Jen: 36:14

Yeah. Okay. So, did the children ever talk about, you know, my parents say that it’s important that we be respectful to the losing team, but I know they really want me to win or anything like that.

Dr. Friedman: 36:27

No, they weren’t. Again, they weren’t that explicit because remember they were elementary school aged kids. So I would imagine, I mean for sure like I could imagine high school they’re saying that and probably some middle schoolers as well. But I think some of it was like not explicitly subversive, but clearly I think the friendship stuff is a coping strategy to dealing with the focus on winning and competition.

Jen: 36:52

Oh wow. My parent says I have to be here doing this thing and so I’m going to make friends and have a good time while I’m at it.

Dr. Friedman: 37:02


Jen: 37:03

How sad.

Dr. Friedman: 37:06

But again you just have to keep it in perspective like when the kids had to go work in the factories too like they definitely developed peer groups and friendships and organized and kids that had to for their families work on the farm and in field and all of that. And they invented all kinds of songs and games and that sort of thing. So, I think kids are just really inventive in that way.

Jen: 37:32

Yeah. Although one might imagine that when they were working in the fields and the farms and the factories even, it was because it was survival. It was you did it or we didn’t eat this winter or we didn’t have enough money to pay the bills.

Jen: 37:43

But this is something that the parents are making a decision about because they think it’s best for their child, but their child has to put this coping mechanism in place.

Dr. Friedman: 37:52

In many ways that’s a same thing, right? So it’s like you need to do this now so that you can do those things later because otherwise, you won’t. In order to do better than I’ve done, which is the definition of the American dream, right? Like you need to at least get these sorts of degrees so you can support yourself or in whatever way, like technologically society is moving. It’s hard to predict when your kids are young, but let’s develop these things so that you’re going to be able to be successful when you’re older.

Dr. Friedman: 38:22

I do think some of that is explicit for parents, right? Like that is literally the definition of the American dream. My children will do better than I have done.

Jen: 38:29

Yeah. But it seems as though by then even more concretely and narrowly defining that success as success is getting into an elite university and then making a lot of money. What we’re doing is we’re making it so that the vast majority of people cannot experience that success. We’re not building new Ivy League Universities, so it seems as though the problem is not necessarily with the sport, but with how we construe success and what we tell our children it means to be successful.

Dr. Friedman: 38:59

Yes. I mean, again, I think the American dream in particular does have a financial component to it that’s tied up in all kinds of other things that need help, like the housing market, those things, but it just goes to show too, like if you are not. I mean I mentioned there are still families in the US that are worried about keeping their homes and feeding their kids, which is not acceptable to me personally, but we moved on. Many people moved on from that setting and so how does this take shape then? I guess it presumes there’s always going to be some sort of anxiety, which we shouldn’t necessarily accept that has to be the case.

Jen: 39:39

Anxiety around your children’s success. Yeah.

Dr. Friedman: 39:42

Yeah, yeah.

Jen: 39:43

Okay. I wonder if you would allow me to throw just a couple of relatively easy careful questions. Did you play sports?

Dr. Friedman: 39:50

Nope. I’m incredibly unathletic.

Jen: 39:55

You didn’t do anything at all?

Dr. Friedman: 39:56

Not really. I mean I danced so some people might consider that a sport.

Jen: 40:00

Yeah. And while you study dancers in the books.

Dr. Friedman: 40:03

Yeah. I tried a few sports but I’m just not, that is not an area in which I have any aptitude at all really.

Jen: 40:11

Okay. So that didn’t form part of your college applications then?

Dr. Friedman: 40:14

No, it definitely did not for me. It’s funny because I teach a course called Sports in American Society and the new book I’m working on is about beauty pageants, so I’ve taught a class on that. I’ve never done a pageant, so I just prove the old dodge, those who can’t do, teach.

Jen: 40:31


Jen: 40:33

So, finally are your children involved in sports and if so, which ones?

Dr. Friedman: 40:38

Yeah, so I tried to get them into soccer because I felt like I knew a little bit about it and it was just amazing because especially my older son just like he did it so much and it was either too cold or it was too hot and he was just like very impacted by that and we tried two times. I tried once in the fall and he was like I hate this, I never want to do this again. And I was like, well you’ve got to try something more than once. And we tried in the spring because I was hoping the weather would be different and he just had no interest at all. Interestingly, at school this year a bunch of his friends are into soccer and then they sort of ask for it and I was like, listen, like you do remember how much you hated this before, like if you ask me again next year, like I’ll consider doing it.

Jen: 41:21

Oh really? Okay. So, he wanted to do it formally and you said no for now?

Dr. Friedman: 41:25

Yeah, because I was like, do you remember like how much we had to fight to go, like I want to make sure he’s actually interested because that’s not pleasant for anybody then.

Jen: 41:33


Dr. Friedman: 41:34

Both of my kids take swim lessons, which I consider a sport, but also just a safety thing, like one should know how to swim so bad things don’t happen and they recently expressed interest in tennis, so the older one started doing tennis because he really liked baseball. He did baseball in the spring and he really loved that, like to an extent that like that had never happened when he had been doing the soccer and so since there was nothing like baseball available in the fall, I said oh, you could try tennis and that’s hand-eye coordination and somewhat similar and so he wanted to do that and then the little brother got swept up in that as well.

Jen: 42:14

Alright. So a fair amount of sports going on, but not any pressure to do it if they didn’t want to do it?

Dr. Friedman: 42:20

No, I mean in fact like I’m the opposite of a tiger mom because I’m very busy. And probably I don’t know too much about what the stuff is. So for instance, with the swimming, like where he takes the lessons, they happened to have a swim team and like the swim coach had said to him a month or two ago like, oh, you’re a really good swimmer, you should consider trying out. And for a week he kept being like, what am I going to try out? I want to try out. And I don’t even know if he knows what that means. Exactly like we talked about it but I don’t think he fully understood it. And then it sort of faded away and part of me was like, wow, like swimming, like 5:00 AM trips to like the swimming pool.

Dr. Friedman: 42:58

So, I want to make sure that it’s something, obviously, if they really want to do something and they’re committed, I’m going to be there and I’m going to support them. Like I’m definitely not the type of parent and I learned that from this research because I was doing it before I had kids. Like I’m just not going to be the kind who’s like, my kid is the best at this. And they’re so amazing, if that makes sense. Like I have an understanding of like there are big ponds out there and you should find what you really love and that could lead to other things like you could be a coach, you could be involved in professional aspects not as a player, but in administration and that sort of thing. So, I definitely want to expose them to a lot of things, but I’m not pushing them in a competitive way.

Jen: 43:44

Alright. Moderation is key.

Dr. Friedman: 43:46


Jen: 43:47

Super. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and your ideas on this with us. Reading the book was definitely a different experience and a better experience actually for considering all these issues along with the health benefits of sports as well. So thanks for talking through that with us.

Dr. Friedman: 44:02

No problem. I just want to say like any book that’s going to say this is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do. Like I would be aware because again, people who have more than one child know that their kids can be so different and so much of it is like reading and educating yourself, but then making a decision that’s best for your family and best for your child and this is just not a one size fits all approach, but it is important that parents get educated just for instance on college scholarships themselves that they’re very hard to get.

Jen: 44:33

Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks again and Dr. Friedman’s book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture can be purchased at your local bookstore or on Amazon and you can find the references for today’s episode at YourParentingMojo.com/Sports.


LaBella, C.R., & Myer, G.D. (2017). Youth sports injury prevention: Keep calm and play on. British Journal of Sports Medicine 51(3), 145-146.

Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., DiFiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., & Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L.J. (2015). Sports specialization, Part II: Alternative solutions to early sport specialization in youth athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 8(1), 65-73.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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