Sports “Politics” are Very Real, But they’re also Inevitable, too


If you have been involved in youth sports as an athlete, coach, or parent you have inevitably heard (or personally used) the term “sports politics.”  Subjectively evaluated events that don’t play out favorably are often called the result of sports politics, like when an athlete is cut from a team, loses out on a starting position, or falls behind another athlete on the depth chart for reasons seemingly unknown.  Some athletes blame sports politics for their situation, a lot of parents accuse coaches of playing sports politics for how their child is being treated, and many coaches have to defend the fact that their decisions are fair and objective and not the result of sports politics.

“Sports politics” or simply human error?

Since the term sports politics is used so frequently, I thought it would be interesting to delve deeper into what exactly this sport psychology term means.  Are millions of kids done wrong by sports politics every day?  The answer to the question is yes, unfortunately.  But before you become too comfortable in knowing that your child likely has been the victim of sports politics, you might want to consider that he or she has probably been the benefactor of sports politics, too.  The point here is that whenever human, subjective decisions are made there will always be human error — and that sometimes this imperfect scientific way of evaluating will go your way, while other times you may lose.

It is impossible for us to make perfect decisions 100% of the time, which is the reason why we call our human judgements “subjective” appraisals.  In some sports, like track for example, it is very easy to make fair, objective decisions (after all one kid will win the race, making it an easy coaching decision about the best runner).  Unfortunately, in many other sports subjective coach decisions are what accounts for the kids who start and/or play the most minutes.

Human perception is unique – and sometimes flawed

Making things even more challenging when it comes to sports politics is that no two human beings see the same event in the same exact way.  In fact, ask any police officer what he or she thinks when a crime scene is being investigated and two witnesses have the same exact story – they know in these situations only one thing could have occurred — they talked to each other to get their stories straight (click here to learn more about Gestalt figure-ground perception theory).  The point here is that what you see in your child’s abilities may or may not be what the head coach sees — or the rest of the coaches of the team for that matter.  Most parents tend to see the highlights when watching their child compete, but coaches have a more macro-appraisal of not only your child’s abilities, but also how he or she stacks up against the rest of the team.  Parents without these perspectives are at a greater risk for immediately calling out politics rather than stepping back and realizing that:

A.) they likely have a higher view of their child to begin with,

B.) they have no idea what criteria the coach is using to make his coaching decisions, and

C.) they don’t know about the talent of the other kids on the team (unless the parent has attended all the practices this information is impossible to know).

Sports politics cut both ways…

If you have ever lost out on a job, missed what you thought was a deserving promotion, or been cut from a team, you could easily make an argument politics were involved – and in many cases you would be right.  With that said, the best advice is to roll with the punches and accept the old adage that “sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose,” realizing that these things tend to play out evenly over the course of a lifetime.  What this means is that you have probably lucked out on some good fortune you didn’t deserve, and similarly lost out on some things that you did deserve.

The best advice here is to stop using the term sports politics — never use it again if at all possible.  Instead, focus on galvanizing resiliency and developing strong coping skills — this approach will not only help in sports, but every aspect of life.