Canadian soccer bodies are phasing in a program to eliminate scorekeeping and standings for under-12 leagues. The spontaneous outrage combusted on schedule. Some was rote, from columnists at the Sun chain with deadlines to meet and clichés at hand: e.g., “this lefty everybody-is-equal garbage.” Some came from parents who seem truly anguished that their kids may enter later life unprepared for how harsh and nasty it can be.

Kathryn Blaze Carlson at the National Post helpfully counterposed two putative authorities. One thinks humans are a hierarchal species, and “genetically programmed to compete.” The other, “a renowned proponent of co-operation over competition,” said: “We compete because we’re raised that way, not because we were born that way.”

These pitched ideological battles are always lose/lose. Humans may be hierarchical; they’re also egalitarian and co-operative. But they’re each of these only in a general way, not in a specific enough way to apply usefully to kids’ soccer programs. My own provisional take, equally unhelpful, is that humans are so essentially social in nature that it’s amazing how much individuality manages to emerge among them. See what I mean about how irrelevant that is here?

More instructive, I’d say is the equanimity of coaches, administrators or former players, like Jason deVos, who captained Canada’s only men’s win at a major tournament. They’re all onside, no sweat. They point out that Brazil, Germany, Holland, etc., have the same policy for under-12s as a way to build winners.

They also know how much goes on besides scores. Even pros often scorn players who focus on “my stats,” i.e., personal wins. I happened to be at the Leafs game last Saturday when the superb 1963 Stanley Cup team was honoured. The biggest cheer went to Eddie Shack, who was less a winner of the game than a lover of it. The song written about him didn’t go: “Clear the track, here comes stats.”

You see the same issues played out over the bodies of the same kids in the debate on standardized testing in the schools. No, I’m not trying to fluff out this column, I insist there is a close parallel. There’s the same obsession with keeping score, quantifying “measurables” (Bill Gates’ term, who’s a big testing advocate). It exploits the same panic among parents over their kids’ winning or losing later in life, having someone to blame, and being able to say they did all they could. Win/loss pervades the debate — which includes education businesses like Pearson that score huge profits by producing and scoring those tests. There’s the split between focusing on skill development versus standings: the more testing, the less teaching. Some kindergarten kids in the U.S. now take 14 tests in a year.

There’s similar agreement among those on-site, i.e., teachers and kids, as there is among soccer coaches and former players: teaching tops testing. As opposed to the view of many “experts” far above the fray, often on payrolls like Pearson’s. The strongest evidence comes from Finland’s amazing schools. They do no standardized tests of their own till after high school. But when international tests are given, Finnish kids always score at the very top. Proving that if you acquire skills and a love of the game, the numbers tend to follow.

Teachers and parents in the U.S. are far ahead of us in fighting this battle because they got so far behind. Teachers in Chicago built the issue into their strategy in their recent successful strike. Teachers in Seattle are boycotting standardized tests based explicitly on civil rights campaigns like the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s. They’re models of determination to win — against the model of win/lose/score of the testers — which also shows how these slogans and catchwords lose any real applicability in specific situations.

Kids on teams will of course continue to keep score, or get their parents to (as I did during T-ball). That simply shows they already know well that winning and losing are built into games and life. Just being kids in a world of older kids and adults, they learn those lessons. It’s always nice when their elders put serious effort into teaching them that the world contains other possibilities, too.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: David Pappas/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.