Kids’ Sports as a Window Into Human Nature
Three evolved traits can make sport parents turn to the dark side.
Posted Jul 31, 2016
A friend of mine recently posted a noteworthy comment on Facebook—essentially saying that she was sitting at her child’s basketball game in a local church league and was, right there on the metal bleachers in the heat, astonished at the behavior of so many of the other parents. How could some of these people be yelling at their own kids that way? How could they be yelling at the coaches like that? Are they really insulting the poor ref who volunteers hours a week in the sweltering heat to help these kids learn the game?
I empathize with this situation. Over the years, my kids have done baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, cross-country, track, and swimming. And I’ve been in the roles of parent, assistant coach, and coach. And while my overall take on kids’ sports in the United States is extremely positive (see my blog: The Psychology of Getting Back into the Batter’s Box), I know full-well that the dark side of kids’ sports is as dark as things get when it comes to being human. So you might ask: Why?
As you may know, my worldview on the human condition is typically filtered through an evolutionary lens—in other words, when asking a question regarding any aspect of our humanity, I typically frame the question in terms of our evolved nature (see Geher, 2014). Below are three evolution-based concepts that can help us understand the dark side of kids’ sports.
1. Ingroup/Outgroup Reasoning
Humans naturally form psychological ingroups and outgroups (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Humans across the globe do this—and people do this at a very early age. This kind of basic social categorization—us versus them—seems to be a basic part of human social psychology. A core feature of ingroup/outgroup reasoning is to give benevolent attributions to “your team” (however that “team” is defined) while, concurrently, essentially demonizing members of “the other team”—giving them little in the way of the benefit of the doubt. We can see evidence of this across so many life domains—such as in politics, religion, and in the sociology of cross-cultural interactions.
But perhaps the easiest place to see ingroup/outgroup reasoning is at your local little league field. Consider a close play at first base. A few months ago, I was coaching first base and my son Andrew was at bat. He belted a grounder into the field and high-tailed it to first base. He got his foot on the bag—the throw then got to the first baseman. I was happy. We were down by one, it was the final inning, and there were two outs.
Of course, from this perspective, you can imagine how surprised I was when the ump yelled, “He’s out at first!”
"What??? Come on!!! That’s not what I saw! And I was right there!” I thought (to myself... I think).
Was he safe? Was he out? The answer is, of course, “who knows!?” at this point. My point here is this: I was the head coach of the Giants—and I saw that play completely through my ingroup-biased eyes. I’m sure parents of kids on the other team thought my kid was “out by a mile!” So it goes …
2. Kin-Selected Psychology
One of the greatest advances of Darwinian scholarship in the past hundred years was the introduction of the idea of “inclusive fitness” which goes hand-in-hand with the concept of “kin-selected altruism” (see Hamilton, 1964). The basic idea here is that organisms that have been shaped by natural selection to advance the replication of their own genetic combinations should be selected to behave in ways that over-benefit their own kin. After all, one’s own kin, by definition, share a higher proportion of one’s particular genetic combinations compared with others. This simple idea ends up being remarkably powerful. This is why bees, which share a particularly high proportion of genetic material with the other members of their hives, often show what seems to be incredibly selfless behavior—helping other members of the hive advances their own genetic goals.
Generally, parents of sexually reproducing species such as our own share about 50% of their genes with their direct offspring. Benefiting those offspring, then, has indirect genetic benefits to oneself. This is a stripped-down evolution-based explanation of why we care so darn much about our kids.
Can we apply these concepts to understanding kids’ sports? You know it! Think about the coach’s kid in baseball. Pitches and bats third, right? OK—that may be something of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean!
So when you see a parent being too tough on his or her kid, that parent may be unconsciously trying (perhaps ineffectively) to improve that kids’ lot. Or did you ever notice that some parents only yell out to the ump when his or her kid is up? As if the ump has been just fine for the other 8 batters, but now seems to have developed some kind of acute myopia the second that little Johhny is in the batter’s box? Right?! We’ve all seen this. And yeah, sometimes it can get out of control. Hamilton’s (1964) ideas on inclusive fitness can help us understand why.
3. We Are Status-Seeking Apes
As a highly sociable product of evolutionary forces, humans are very status-sensitive. When something in the environment hints that we may be low in status, our emotion system kicks in and motivates us to correct the situation (see Hill & Buss, 2010). This is why little kids don’t want to be last in line for ice cream, even if everyone is guaranteed a cone. It’s also why an adolescent male might start a physical fight because he was called “a loser” in a public forum. The fact is that ancestors of ours who were not motivated to stay high in status did not have the same access to resources that our high-status ancestors had. And some of them, as a result, never survived and reproduced. For better or worse, we are the descendants of thousands of generations of humans who were status-sensitive and who, to varying degrees, fought for high status.
I’ve coached a bunch of kids’ teams—some were winning teams and some were losing teams. And while I think I have a reputation as taking it all in stride, on the inside, I can tell you this: Losing stinks! Yes, there, I’ve said it! On other other hand, winning kicks butt! The emotional and hormonal outcomes associated with winning and losing have been well-documented (see Stanton et al., 2009). For instance, testosterone levels increase after victories and decrease after losses. And this is true not only in sports competitions, but also for outcomes associated with elections as well as with a number of life situations in which winning and losing are clearly demarcated outcomes.
We are motivated to win—or at least not to lose. So while a group of 10-year-olds losing a church-league basketball game on a lazy summer day may seem like it’s hardly a big deal at all, the evolutionarily ancient status-sensitive mechanisms in the depths of our minds are not always able to see this for what it is.
I love kids’ sports. I’ve probably spent over 500 hours of my life watching and helping out with games, practices, swim meets, etc. I love watching the kids develop and the games are usually fun. This said, there is a dark side to kids’ sports. Parents—either in the roles of coaches or spectators—often cross boundaries. Famous examples make the news with some regularity (not to stereotype, but think “hockey parent” ...). How could this be? How could parents at kids’ sporting events get so out of line? These are just kids! And it’s just a game!
To help understand this widespread phenomenon, it’s helpful to look to our evolved psychology. Ingroup/outgroup reasoning plays a major role in helping understand why people can be so motivated to have “their team” win. Further, kin-selected psychology helps us understand why a parent can become so irrational when his or her kid is up at the plate. Finally, the nature of our deep-seated status-sensitivity mechanisms helps us understand why some people care so darn much about losing a Little League baseball game—or getting upset that a well-natured, curly haired 10-year-old boy missed a foul shot during a church-league basketball game on a lazy summer day.
Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27–52.
Hamilton W.D. (1964). "The genetical evolution of social behaviour. I". J. Theor. Biol. 7, 1–16.
Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Risk and relative social rank: positional concerns and risky shifts in probabilistic decision-making. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 219-226.
Stanton, S. J. et al. (2009). Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters' Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election. PloS One, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0007543