The Economics of Paying for Goals

Economics is about incentives. Raising children is often about incentives as well. Sure, we would like our kids to eat their vegetables out of a love for vegetables, but let’s be honest, kids are quite the little self-interested utility maximizers who heavily discount the future. The threat of no dessert fits much better with economic theory than does the phrase “eat your broccoli so that you will be less likely to suffer from Type II diabetes when you are 65.” We bribe. No, strike that. As economists, we don’t bribe – we ‘nudge’.

But what about hockey? Does it make economic sense to ‘nudge’ children to provide extra effort on the ice? We often hear of parents paying for goals, or points, or championships – sometimes in money and sometimes with promises of slurpees for hat tricks. Is this optimal behaviour?

There are really two questions involved here. First, what is the behaviour we are trying to incentivize? And second, what is the best way to encourage children towards this behaviour.

I don’t think parents who pay for goals are really focussed on the goals. At least I hope they aren’t. I believe the true aim is to encourage their children to try their hardest when they are on the ice. Goals are just the most obvious outcome of this effort, especially for the youngest players. Sure, we would like kids to always try their hardest when they are playing hockey (as in anything they do) simply because this drive to succeed will take them far. But let’s be honest, kids are often distracted, lazy, or – the phrase heard most often around the rinks – inconsistent. The promise of a new Skylander if Johnny scores a goal is sometimes more salient than the inner satisfaction of playing a good game. The hope of parents of course is that the kid’s initial success (perhaps due in part to bribes) feels so good that it helps develop inner motivation for more success.

Assuming then that parents want to encourage children to try hard on the ice, is paying for goals the best way to do this?

First off, let’s not forget that this is a team sport. Paying for goals is inherently different than paying a swimmer for besting their lap time. The goal of a hockey player should not be to score a goal; it should be to help their team score more goals than the other team. To that end, one could consider a payment system based on their plus/minus or assists. However, lessons from labour economics suggest that even these broader measures could undermine group productivity. Performance-based pay is less effective when the tasks of the job include multi-tasking, teamwork, and other characteristics for which individual contribution is difficult to determine. Strong players may start to resent their less-able teammates for low stats, and those children not putting in a strong effort may be rewarded for the hard work of their teammates.

So what to do?

One suggestion comes from the economic literature on incentives in children’s education, most notably the work by Roland Fryer, of Harvard. ( Using very large, school-randomized experiments, Fryer measures the impact of a variety of financial incentive programs on student achievement. The key result is that rewards for inputs (class attendance, reading books, homework completion, good behaviour) produced results in terms of increased performance on tests. On the other hand, directly paying for increased scores on tests did not have the desired results. The rationale behind this – paying for inputs rather than outputs – is that children do not necessarily understand how to perform better on tests.

Just as young hockey players may not always understand how to play good hockey.

The lesson for hockey parents? Don’t reward children for outputs (goals, points, wins, plus/minus) but rather for inputs. Buy them a timbit after an especially good practise. Give them a loonie when they work on their cross-overs. Allow more time on the Ipad when they listen to their coach during practise. Set up a chart for the number of shots they take in the driveway.

Incentivize the inputs and let the kids do the rest.



2 thoughts on “The Economics of Paying for Goals

  1. My son wanted to be rewarded with $5 per goal and I was uncomfortable with this. So I made a compromise and said it’ll be $3 bucks and it’s even whether a goal or an assist. So far his line is on fire (he’s bigger so he plays with 2 little kids) and he’s just as willing to dig in the corner, draw the defense and make the pass to his smaller line mates if they are in scoring position. My observation would be he is doing a cost benefit analysis of what his best play would be, and if it’s $3 making the pass as opposed to potentially $0 trying to skate through traffic he makes the pass. Because the financial reward depends on the team scoring, so far he seems to be doing the math whether he should dig out the puck and pass it or shot it himself depending on the situation. He is in the run for top scorer on his team, but has top points hands down. It is important to stress I pay the same for assists as goals.

    However I agree with the gist of this article. I think once he gets used to the idea he can contribute, it will come naturally, so I can phase it out towards more global objectives. But previously he was a good strategic player but let the other natural puck hogs (all teams have them, some kids don’t need incentives to score but those kids also don’t pass) on the team do all the offense. He’d get maybe 3 goals a season. Now he’s getting 3 points, not goals but points, a game and the other little players on his line get to experience the joy that comes with scoring too. He’ll skate it all the way from our end and if he’s by himself he shoots but if somebody came with him he’ll often pass if the other player has a better advantage on the goalie.

    We’re talking Novice here.

  2. So a follow up comment.

    As the season progressed I tried to move….

    Oh wait! I forgot that the reason my son wanted to be paid for goals was because it was common practice amongst the goal leaders and puck hogs on the team and he knew about it! How can you fight fire without fire??

    Anyway I did try and move to the plus minus thing and he hated that idea! Hated it! He was playing center and his idea was if his defense couldn’t skate back what could he do about it he couldn’t be at both ends all the time. Whereas he was pretty sure points was ok because he could either score himself or pass to his forwards. But he didn’t think he could do both at all times and hated the idea! Unfortunately, for his line the best defense was a good offense.

    In the end he became a natural scorer and not associated with the other kids who were being paid so I cancelled the program. I agree with the article, the program was wrong to begin with you shouldn’t do it, but the problem is the other parents are and the kids, even your kid, will find out about it. They know some of the other kids are getting paid for goals, and they also know those kids are puck hogs who won’t pass. I’m glad at least I went with assists being equal to goals, it really made him different than the other kids that were getting paid just for goals. And also easier to wean him off of it.

    But my experience with it is that the article is correct. Paying for goals is destructive to team play. Even paying for points as I did, while much better than goals, over-emphasises offense and detracts from just letting the kids play for fun. I don’t pay for anything anymore other than to buy a Slurpee just because he wants one.

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