Are You Raising a Poor Sport? Teaching Kids to Compete
Competition can build character in kids. But how do you teach a child that winning isn't everything—and is that a lesson you need to learn, too?
Messages Parents Send
Parents are likely to provide both explicit and implicit messages about competition, suggests Giles. “It’s not just what you tell them, it’s the expression on your face and your body language.” Parents may also send value judgments regarding competition by how they talk to the television. “When you yell, ‘You idiot!’ at the football player who just missed a play, you are sending your child a powerful message,” she says.
“I see so many parents at ball games who belittle their child from 100 feet away, and the poor kid just cringes inside,” says Staudacher. “You want the kids to go out, have fun, and use the skills they have practiced during the week. But if they miss a play or accidentally drop the ball, it’s not the end of the world.”
Publicly chiding a child is just one sign in parents that competition has gotten of control. What are some others? “When they step over the line and criticize their child’s coach, other parents, or officials during the game,” says Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). “When the child says, ‘Dad (or Mom), you really embarrassed me out there today.” Parents may even be punitive with their child regarding his performance and take away privileges.
“Sometimes parents invest too much identity in what their child achieves, rather than who he is,” says Giles. Her advice? “Step back and do some self-evaluation. It may have to do with fairly deep-seeded issues regarding your own achievements and unfulfilled dreams.”
What if Mom and Dad have a balanced perspective on competition, but their child’s coach or instructor does not? If this happens, parents should be willing to discuss it with the coach. “Remind him of the kids’ ages and tell him you think he is focusing too much on competition,” advises Powell. “Sometimes people just need to have it pointed out to them.” Also talk with other parents and try to make something happen. “See if there is a supervising organization you can speak with. Go up in the ranks if you need to.”
If there isn’t already one in place, suggest that the league have a training program for coaches that spells out roles and responsibilities, says Engh. “If they don’t live up to the expected role, they don’t get to coach any child.”
Equally important, talk with your child about improper attitudes and behaviors he may have observed. “A good strategy is to say something like, ‘What that person said or did is not how we do things in our family.’ It’s a great way to talk to your kids about your family’s values,” says Powell.
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