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Why We Play Sports: Winning Motivates, But Can Backfire, Too

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Playing sports has always been important to 31-year-old Erik Johanson, a city planner in Philadelphia. Johanson thrived in baseball and ice hockey as a kid, he says — "one of the best players on the team in high school."

Today, Johanson is married and expecting his first child but is still passionate about ice hockey — and about winning. He plays on a highly competitive team of guys who got together after college and still play weekly in an adult league; they hope to take the crown this year.

"I think if you had that experience when you were younger — and that experience feels really good to win — I don't think you ever really lose that," he says. "I think, especially when life gets more complicated when you grow up, you still need it. You have fewer opportunities for it, because it's not such a key part of your life anymore, so you seek it out."

A recent poll NPR did with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that a solid majority of adults in the U.S. who play sports — 56 percent — say that winning is important to them, too. Fifty-four percent of adults who play sports say they always or often push themselves to their physical limits, and 85 percent say their performance is important to them.

Plus, victory in sport is just plain fun, says George Gmelch, an anthropologist at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Gmelch studies sports culture, and he played professional baseball in the minor leagues.

Even watching your team win feels good, Gmelch says; imagine how great people feel when "they've contributed to the team's success." But interestingly, he says, as we get older that need to compete and win in the sports we play seems to wane.

That may be one reason why interest in playing sports declines with age. Forty percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 25 say they play sports. But among those who are 26 to 29 years old, only one in four plays. As for the over-50 crowd, just 20 percent play sports.

For anyone who views participation in sports as one way to keep adults physically active as they age, that sharp drop-off in participation can be dismaying.

Respondents to our poll cite health problems and injuries among their reasons for not playing sports. But they also say they just don't have the time or the interest.

Sports psychology coach Greg Chertok, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine, says this drop in interest may stem in part from how today's adults viewed losing as kids, not just winning.

"Did we view losing as a blow to our self esteem?" Chertok says. "Did losing guarantee a verbally abusive car ride home with Dad? Did losing mean a 10-minute diatribe from the coach after the game?"

Those sorts of negative reactions to not winning can be demoralizing, says Chertok, and can lay the groundwork for a negative view of sports in childhood and teen years — or later in adulthood, when wins get even tougher to come by.

"Kids don't begin playing sports with the sole intention of winning," Chertok says. That's often an adult-imposed goal, he says, starting as early as Little League or youth soccer. "And often parents can be as demanding — and, detrimental — as coaches."

Learning early in life to feel pleasure in a win is great, Chertok says, but the main goals of youth sport should be exercise, fun, social interaction and personal growth and development — character building. Parents and coaches who put a "rigid, inflexible emphasis on winning," he says, not only put kids off, but risk turning them off sports — and its health benefits — for good.

Our sports and health series continues over the summer, based on the results of our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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