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Some Lessons Taught by Informal Sports, Not by Formal Sports

Real life is an informal sport, not a formal one.

Imagine an old-fashioned sandlot game of baseball. A bunch of kids of various ages show up at the vacant lot. They've come on foot or by bicycle. Someone brought a bat, someone brought a ball (which may or may not be an actual baseball), and several came with fielders' gloves. They decide to play a game. The two reputably best players serve as captains, and they choose up sides. They lay out the bases--which might be hats, Frisbees, or any other objects of suitable size. There may not be enough players to fill all the standard positions, so they improvise. No adult authority is present to tell the kids what to do or to settle disputes. They have to work all this out themselves. This way of playing is what I refer to as the informal way of playing sports.

Now imagine a Little League game of baseball. It's played on a manicured field, which looks like a smaller version of the fields where professional games are played. Most kids are driven to the field, partly because it is a distance from home and partly because their parents are behind this activity. Many parents stay for the game, to show their support for their young players. The teams are predetermined; they are part of an ongoing league. Each team has an adult coach, and an adult umpire is present to call balls, strikes, and outs. An official score is kept, and, over the course of the season wins and losses are tracked to determine the championship team. This way of playing is what I refer to as the formal way of playing sports.

I can imagine many reasons why parents today value formal sports over informal sports for their children. For reasons that I discussed in the post of July 29, 2009, many parents are afraid to let their children play in settings where there is no adult supervisor, or where they themselves (the parents) aren't present to watch. To them, the formal game seems safer, because of the adult presence and direction. Some harbor hopes that their children will one day become professional athletes, or at least heroes on high school or college teams, so they value the expert training that the formal game may provide. Many parents see formal sports, unlike informal sports, as activities that can be recorded on children's résumés and help get them into something, sometime. Our cultural obsession with schooling has led many to the misconception that the only activities that count in children's development are those that are led by adults. All lessons are seen implicitly as coming top-down, from capable adults to incapable children. What, after all, could my precious child learn from other children?

I'm not against formal sports for children, as long as children really want them and prove that by taking all of the initiative to join; but I am saddened to see the huge decline in children's informal sports--and in all sorts of free, self-directed outdoor play--that has occurred during my years as an adult. As I have said before, I think that decline plays a big part in the epidemics of childhood obesity, depression, and perhaps other childhood disorders that we see today. There is a tendency to blame the decline in children's free outdoor play on the rise of electronic games and the ever-increasing seductiveness of television programming. Those may contribute, but I think the bigger factor by far lies in the changed attitudes of adults, who no longer trust their children to play freely, on their own, outdoors.

The Lessons of Informal Sports

Informal sports, as well as other child-organized varieties of social play, teach lessons that cannot be taught, or cannot be taught as well, by adult-directed formal sports. Here's a summary of the most important of those lessons, as I see them.**

1. There is no real difference between your team and the opposing team.

In informal sports, the players can see at every moment that their division into two teams is arbitrary and serves purely the purpose of the game. New teams are chosen at every game. Billy may have been on the "enemy team" yesterday, but today he is on your team. In fact, teams may even change composition as the game goes along. Billy may start off on the enemy team, but then may move over to your team to make sides more even after two of your teammates go home for supper. Or, if both teams are short of players, Billy may catch for both teams. Clearly, the concept of "enemy" or "opponent" in informal sports is one that has to do with fantasy and play, not reality. It is temporary and limited to the game itself. Billy is just pretending to be your opponent when he is on the other side; he isn't in reality. It's in that sense like a pure fantasy game in which Billy pretends to be an evil giant trying to catch you and eat you.

In contrast, in formal, league sports, teams remain relatively fixed over a whole series of games. The result is development of a sense of team identity and, with it, a sense that "my team is better than other teams"--better even in ways that have nothing to do with the game and may extend to situations outside of the game. A major theme of much research in social psychology, and in political science, has to do with ingroup-outgroup conflict. Cliques, gangs, ethnic chauvinism, nationalism, wars--these can all be discussed in terms of our tendency to value people we see as part of our group and devalue people we see as part of another group. Formal team sports feed into our impulse to make such group distinctions, in ways that informal sports do not. Of course, enlightened coaches of formal sports may lecture about good sportsmanship and valuing the other team, but we all know how much good lecturing does for children--or for adults, for that matter.[1]

2. To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy, including the players on the other team.

In the minds of the players, the informal game is conducted just for fun. Nobody is forced or pressured to play. There are no coaches, parents, or other adults who will scold you or be dissappointed if you quit; no fans to please. There are no trophies or other prizes to win or lose. A score may be kept, and players may cheer each time one of their own crosses home plate or makes a great play, but tomorrow nobody will remember who won. Part of the definition of free play is that players are free to quit at any time (see definition of play). Because they are free to quit, the game can continue only as long as a sufficient number of players choose to continue. They will continue playing if they are having fun; they will find some reason to quit if they are not. Every experienced player knows that implicitly. Therefore, every player who wants to keep the game going is motivated to keep the other players happy, including those who are on the "enemy team."

This means that you show certain restraints in the informal game--restraints that go beyond those dictated by the rules and derive from your understanding of the needs and desires of the other players. You don't run full force into second base, bowling the second baseman over, if he is smaller than you and could get hurt--even though in the formal game that would be considered good strategy and a coach might scold you for not running as hard as possible. This attitude, in fact, is why children get hurt less frequently in informal sports than in formal sports, despite parents' beliefs that the adult-directed formal sports are safer. If you are pitching, you pitch softly to little Johnny, because you know he can't hit your fastball, and you know he would not have fun and would leave if you struck him out every time. You also know that even your teammates would accuse you of being "mean" if you threw your fastest pitches to Johnny. But you don't pitch too softly to Johnny, because you don't want to insult him. To be a good player of informal sports you have to hone your skills as a psychologist, to understand what others want. In the informal game, keeping people happy, so the game will continue, is far more important than winning. That's true in life as well.

3. Rules are modifiable and are generated by the players themselves.

Because nothing is standardized in the informal game, the players have to make up and modify rules to adapt to varying conditions. If the vacant lot is small and the only ball available is a rubber one that carries too well, a rule may be adopted saying that any ball hit farther than the rock in the outfield is an automatic out. This causes the players to concentrate on placing their hits, rather than smashing them. Alternatively, certain players--the strongest hitters--may be required to bat one-handed, with their non-dominant hand, or to bat with a broomstick rather than an actual bat. As the game goes on and conditions change, the rules may change further. None of this happens in Little League, where the official rules are inviolable and interpreted by an adult authority rather than by the players, and where conditions must be standardized to fit the rules.

Piaget noted long ago, in his classic study of children playing marbles, that children acquire a higher understanding of rules when they play just with other children than when their play is directed by adults.[2] Adult direction, in formal games, leads to the assumption that rules are determined by an outside authority and are not to be questioned. When children play just among themselves, however, with no official authority present, they come to realize that rules are just conventions, established to make the game more fun and more fair, and can be changed to meet changing conditions. For life in a democracy, few lessons are more important than that.

4. Conflicts are settled by argument, negotiation, and compromise.

In the informal game, with no umpire--or at least no authoritative umpire (there may be a kid "umpiring" because he has a broken ankle and can't play)--the players must not only make and modify the rules but must decide all along the way whether a hit is fair or foul, whether a runner is safe or out, whether the pitcher is or isn't being too mean to Johnny, and whether or not Julio should be allowed to hog his brand new glove rather than share it with someone on the opposing team who doesn't have a glove. Some of the better or more popular players may have more pull in these arguments than others, but everyone has a say. Everyone who has an opinion defends it, with as much logic as they can muster; and ultimately consensus is reached.

Consensus doesn't necessarily mean agreement. It just means that everyone consents; they're willing to go along with it for the sake of keeping the game going. Consensus is crucial if you want the game to continue. The need for consensus in informal play doesn't come from some highfalutin moral philosophy; it comes from practical reality. If people don't agree, some will quit, and if too many quit the game is over. So you learn, in the informal game, that you have to compromise if you want to keep playing. Because you don't have a king who decides things for you, you have to learn how to govern yourselves. Hmmm--govern yourselves--I wonder if that skill is useful in real life.

Once I was watching some kids play an informal game of basketball. They were spending more time deciding on the rules and arguing about whether particular plays were fair or not than they were playing the game. I overheard an adult nearby say, "Too bad they don't have a referee to decide these things, so they wouldn't have to spend so much time debating." Well, is it too bad? In the long run of their lives, which will be the more important skill--shooting baskets or debating effectively and learning how to compromise? Kids playing informal sports are practicing many things at once, and the least important of those things may be the sport itself.

5. Playing well and having fun really ARE more important than winning.

"Playing well and having fun are more important than winning," is a line often used by Little League coaches after a loss, rarely after a win. But with spectators watching, with a trophy in the offing, and with so much attention to the score one has to wonder how many of the players believe him, and how many secretly think that Vince Lombardi had is right. The view that "winning is everything" becomes even more prominent in formal sports as you move up to high school and then to college sports, especially in football and basketball, which are the sports that American schools care most about.

But in informal sports playing well and having fun really are more important than winning. Everyone knows that; you don't have to try to convince anyone with a lecture. The whole point of the informal game is to have fun and stretch your own skills.You may stretch your skills in new and creative ways, which would be disallowed or jeered at in the formal game. You might, for example, try batting with a narrow stick, to improve your eye, or batting left-handed even though you normally bat righty. You might make behind-the-back catches in the outfield. If you are a better player than the others on the field, these are ways to self-handicap, which make the game more interesting not just for yourself but also for others. In the formal game, where winning matters, you could never do such things; you would be accused of betraying your team. Of course you have to be careful about when and where to make these creative changes in your play, even in the informal game. You have to know how to do it without offending others or coming across as an arrogant show-off. Always, in informal play, you have to be a psychologist!

In my experience, both as player and observer of informal sports, players in such games are more intent on playing beautifully than on winning. Beauty may involve new, creative ways of moving that allow you to express yourself and stretch your physical skills while still coordinating your actions to mesh with those of others. The informal game is an innovative group dance, in which all of the players create their own moves while taking care not to step on others' toes (for a description of the dance-like nature of a children's game of keep-away, see post of January 14, 2009).

Which is the better training for real life, the informal game or the formal one?

Real life is an informal sport, not a formal one. The rules are endlessly modifiable and you must do your share to create them. There are in the end no winners or losers--we all wind up in the same place. Getting along with others is far more important than beating them. What matters in the end is how you play the game, how much fun you have along the way, and how much joy you give to others. Live life like a sandlot ball game. And, please, let your child go out to play--with other kids, while you stay home or do something else that you would like to do. In play, no matter how loving your relationship, your child is better off without you.


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**This discussion is in some ways redundant to my March 4, 2009, discussion of the meta-rules of play.

[1] For a classic research study showing how formal team sports can exacerbate real-life tensions between two groups of young boys, see M. Sherif et al. (1961), Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The Robbers Cave experiment.

[2] J. Piaget (1965), The moral judgment of the child.