Upward basketball emphasizes fun over competition

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:49 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Members of the Marlins and Rangers basketball teams, part of the Upward Sports league, compete in a game March 11 at Memorial Baptist Church. Upward basketball focuses on equal playing time and skill building "for the sports arena and values for life," according to its website.

COLUMBIA — John Stannard, No. 11 of the Spartans, drives across the court, jumps and shoots. The ball sinks into the basket, evening the score at 2-2 in the first half. 

By the end of the first half, the Wildcats lead, 13-8. But instead of carrying the score into the second half, it's wiped clean and reset to 0-0.

About Upward Basketball

WHERE: Memorial Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church

WHO: All children from kindergarten to sixth grade are welcome to register.

COST: $60 to $70 per child for the season.


  • Every child gets the chance to be in the starting lineup.
  • Games last for 45 minutes, and the clock stops every six minutes for predetermined substitutions. Timeouts are not allowed.

  • Players are matched up by size and skill level in an attempt to equalize the court.

  • During games for the kindergarten, first- and second-grade players, no score is kept at all.
  • Double teaming, zone defense and isolation offense are a few traditional styles of play in basketball that are not allowed in Upward, director Joe Vancil said.

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Upward basketball, a Christian basketball league in Columbia, promotes a game format that takes the focus off winning and losing. Instead, as the scores show, the emphasis is sportsmanship and compassion.

"We do not over-value winning," said league director Joe Vancil. "We look at winning and losing as a part of the process. There is no such thing as a perfect Christian. We just have to do our best."

Children from kindergarten to sixth grade gathered to play Upward basketball from January to March in the carpeted multipurpose room at Memorial Baptist Church. This season, about 340 children registered with the church to be part of the league and were divided into teams of about 10 players each.

A system of predetermined player substitution means each child is guaranteed at least 18 minutes on the court, Vancil said. Unlike in competitive sports, where some players might never leave the bench, every child gets the chance to play.

No score is kept for the kindergarten, first- and second-grade players. For older kids, the score is only kept until halftime. Still, an "unwritten rule" in Upward is to try to make sure every child scores during the season, volunteer referee Tim Underwood said.

But despite the rules of Upward, which encourage a low-pressure atmosphere, the children keep track, said Kristin Gerike, mother of league player 10-year-old Corey Burton. Even though the score is set to zero after halftime for the older kids, they know who wins.

Aaron Scofield, 8, has been playing basketball since he was in first grade and said he likes games that keep track of the score better than ones that don't.

Jennifer Stafford, a graduate student and instructor of sports sociology at MU, said this feeling is typical.

"We are socialized with the belief that the U.S. is a meritocracy," she said. People believe those who have success gain all the rewards. In the context of competitive sports, winning is the measure of success.

"In order to succeed, you need to know how to compete," Stafford said. So, there needs to be balance: Learn how to compete, but not to the detriment of others.

John Galliher, former Peace Studies director at MU, said that one argument for competition is that without it, "we wouldn't do our best. But I don't think that's completely true."

Galliher said that though competition is a part of life, people also take pride in what they do and strive to do their best for reasons other than winning.

Upward coaches and volunteers are not necessarily trying to keep the players from wanting to win, but to understand that winning is not the only measure of success. Although the kids are encouraged to play hard, they are equally encouraged to think of others.

The league uses a rewards system that acknowledges each child for his or her contribution to the team so that win or lose, each team member is recognized.

After the Spartans' Saturday game, Connor Lake, 16-year-old coach, called each player by name and handed out stars for best offense, defense, sportsmanship, effort and Christ-likeness.

The Christ-likeness star was handed out to players who best embodied the kindness and compassion of Jesus Christ during the game, and it serves as a reminder that each player should aspire to be kind and compassionate toward others no matter the score.

Aside from applying these principles to basketball, Lake said that during the season, he taught his team about respect, compassion and speaking up for what's right by offering examples of how his team should stand up against bullying at school.

"I try using language that they can understand and give scenarios that they can relate to," Lake said.

Each game at Memorial Baptist Church started with a huddled prayer. At halftime, a short, prerecorded faith message was played of Kevin Glenn, the church's pastor. The messages often used sports analogies and stories of accomplishment to encourage and empower players, parents and spectators. 

The faith aspect is part of why 8-year-old Landon Kintner likes being part of the league — it "helps believing God better," he said after one of his games. His mom tapped him on the shoulder, and the whole family walked down the hall to a room where biscuits and gravy were being served. 

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Harold Sutton April 10, 2012 | 1:28 p.m.

Upward Basketball is a great way for not only the kids but equally as much for all the adults involved. There are also other sports that are part of the "Upward" program.

And, the reporter for this article should have mentioned the other Churches that sponsor the "Upward" programs in this area. You might be suprized how many!

(Report Comment)
Jessica Clark April 10, 2012 | 3:14 p.m.


I'm the reporter of this story, and I first want to thank you for your comment!

Absolutely, Upward Basketball is just one aspect of Upward Sports. In the 65201 zip code alone the Upward website lists four organizations that host Upward sports.

Basketball (with Cheerleading):
Memorial Baptist Church
Calvary Baptist Church

Christian Chapel Assembly of God

Flag Football (with Cheerleading):
Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church

Again, thank you for commenting.

Jessica Clark
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)

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