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Posted on Sun, Oct 25, 2009 : 2:12 p.m.

Keeping high school sports in perspective and 'other' predictions

By Pete Cunningham

For some high school athletes, the end of the fall sports season will mark the last time they participate in competitive sports. So it’s a time to reflect about what makes a successful high school sports career

By what should success in sports be measured? If you answered wins, losses or statistics, it may surprise you to know who disagrees.

“We have such a preoccupation with winning in this society that we’ve really, I think, lost sight of what winning really is, beyond coming in first,” said Jim Richardson, a panelist at a recent discussion on ethics in sports, hosted by, a new local non-profit which aims to increase awareness of ethical issues. “We’re reinforcing product and talent, we’re not reinforcing process, and yet what would we rather our children have? Talent, which may be good enough at times, but at other times it may not be good enough, or would we rather be reinforcing skills that they’re going to need to have in order to be successful in life?”

Richardson isn’t some anti-competition hippie, crying because he was never picked in gym class. He’s been the women’s swimming coach at the University of Michigan for the past 25 years. On Thursday, Richardson, along with three other panelists - Pioneer field hockey coach Jane Nixon, Michigan director of basketball operations Brian Townsend, and assistant professor at U-M and Ph.D. Tom George, who studies the psychology of sport— discussed ethical issues in sports today.

The panelists were not chosen By to lead the discussion because they shared a certain viewpoint. It was mere coincidence that the individuals - all of whom have achieved a great level of professional success in sports - agreed that too many of today’s parents and coaches are heading down a dangerous path.

“Coaches get caught up in winning and not teaching, and they live vicariously through the kids,” said Townsend, adding that when this type of pressure is applied by coaches and parents “the kids are not able to enjoy it.”

This from a man who was a member of four Big Ten championship football teams at Michigan, played in the NFL before he made the switch from the gridiron to the hardwood. In basketball, Townsend coached Pioneer’s boy’s team to its only state championship, and now oversees a Division 1 program. He believes when dealing with young people, reinforcing process over results is key.

George agreed.

“Enjoy the moment of sport. Don’t focus on the outcome,” he said. “Don’t focus on the outcome, but enjoy the actual process of playing because that’s where the fun is.”

When I sit in the bleachers and hear moms, girlfriends, dads and boyfriends, berating referees, coaches and opposing players, it’s clear some haven’t gotten the memo. You see it, too, when comments on such as “he sold his soul to the devil and he will coach his last game next week,” litter the comments section of an article about a high school game.

“It’s one place where kids can really be in charge of what they’re doing and it’s an opportunity for parents to be on the outside and just to be supportive and bring the snacks,” Nixon said. “You ask athletes why they play, they often say for fun.

“This isn’t like ‘woo-who’ balloon fun, let’s have some balloons and eat cake. This is more the fun that comes from working hard the fun that comes from belonging. The fun that comes from the friendships you can establish; the memories that you have.”

PREDICTIONS: My predictions last week were dependent on Saline’s boys soccer team winning the first two rounds of districts, but Pioneer made me eat my words in the opening round by handing the Hornets their first loss at home since 2006. Pioneer is now planning an end-of-season dinner, and Huron is preparing for regionals, so they’re probably not too concerned about holding me to my “conditioning drill of choice” promise, but we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, here are this week’s predictions:

TUESDAY Huron vs. East Kentwood at Portage Central, boys soccer regional: Huron prevailed Saturday, but will likely have its run ended by East Kentwood, defending state champions and currently ranked No. 4 by the Michigan High School Soccer Association. Keep in mind that Huron is 3-0 when I pick against them so far this season East Kentwood, 3-1.

FRIDAY Dexter, Huron, Pioneer at Birmingham Groves, boys water polo regional (opening round): Pioneer, Huron and Dexter had earned berths as one, three and four seeds respectively on Friday. Pioneer and Huron should be able to advance past the first round unscathed, but Dexter, playing the champion from the Groves district, will need a monster game out of goalie Ian Wilson and Co. to pull the upset. Pioneer over No. 4 seed, Huron over No. 2 seed, No. 1 seed over Dexter.

SATURDAY Pioneer, Chelsea, Dexter, Gabriel Richard, etc. at Huron River Rat Invitational, volleyball: It’s very tempting to pick Dexter and Alli Krips (a.k.a. the Krips Keeper) at a Halloween tournament, but the field - which includes Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, ranked No. 3 in Division 2 - may be stronger than even the undead. Field.

FIELD HOCKEY PLAYOFFS Either I'm too stupid to read a bracket correctly or the Michigan High School Field Hockey Association's layout is confusing. Regardless, as opposed to what was previously reported by a certain uninformed reporter, Huron and Pioneer are on opposite sides of the bracket and should meet up in the finals, and I like the the River Rats' chances. So, I'll either be the genius who called their shot, or the idiot who actually picked against the four-time defending state champions. Here’s how I see the rest of the bracket.

Round two, Monday: Pioneer over Washtenaw, 8-0; Huron over Greenhills, 6-1; Saline over Detroit Country Day 3-2. Quarterfinals, Wednesday: Pioneer over University Liggett 5-0; Huron over Ladywood 5-0; Marian over Saline 4-1. Semifinals, Thursday: Huron over Grosse Pointe South, 3-1; Pioneer over Marian, 2-1. Finals, Saturday: Huron over Pioneer, 2-1 (OT).

Now it's your turn to play along by making picks below. If the readers beat me, I’ll subject myself to a conditioning drill of choice from one of the teams that I incorrectly picked to lose. The voting polls are pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. We love our moms and girlfriends and want them to stay healthy, so ladies, please get checked because we'd be miserable without you.








Pete Cunningham covers sports for He can be reached by e-mail at, or by phone at 734-623-2561. You can follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.



Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 4:52 p.m.

First of all, I want to say this is a great article. Probably the best from Pete thus far (this might be biased as I am a friend of his). As for the point of the article, I couldn't agree more. I think the competition needs to be there to teach children the importance of goal setting, dedication and team work. However, at the end of the day, a large majority of players will not go pro or even get a college scholarship. I do feel it is important to have some focus on winning because children need to have a drive to win. Also, if kids don't try to win while playing sports, they wont get the opportunity to build those important life-long skills. On the flip side, if the only focus is on winning, then parents will not teach their kids the important life-long skills discussed above. In the end, it's all about balance.

Barton Bund

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 12:46 p.m.

Hear the full audio recording of 'Ethics in Competitive Sports' at