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?
When Competitiveness Begins
For as long as Rene Staudacher can remember, her son Jake has had a competitive edge. Be it a simple game of Chutes and Ladders or baseball playoffs, he is always out to win. “Jake doesn’t like to lose,” says Staudacher. “He sets very high standards for himself.”
Luke Branson’s first brush with competition came during a Sesame Street board game. “He was three years old, and it was the first time he had ever played a game,” recalls his mother Liza. “We had played about three rounds, and I had let him win every time. Then it occurred to me I wasn’t doing him any favors by not letting him lose.” So the next round was not rigged and Luke lost. “Boy, was he upset!” Branson continues. “He sat on my lap and cried. He just didn’t understand why he couldn’t win all the time.”
“Children start asking questions about competition around 3 to 3 1/2 years old,” says Jessica Giles, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “This is when they start to understand basic concepts of winning and losing—’I beat you to the door,’ ‘I finished my snack first.’ It isn’t until later that they begin to learn about games that involve numerical value, such as soccer or baseball.”
Paige Powell, child psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, agrees. “Winning and losing in sports doesn’t have much meaning to preschoolers. They are more concerned about skill development, what they have almost done—’Did you see me catch that ball?’ It is later, age 7 or 8, when they start thinking in more competitive terms.”
When a Child Is Too Competitive
Experts agree it is normal to show disappointment in a bad play or lost game, but if a child’s view of competition gets out of control, parents may need to intervene. Signs this may be happening include intense anger or crying, an abundance of negative self-talk, becoming overly anxious about competing, cheating, withdrawal from friends and other activities, unsportsmanlike conduct, and/or using performance enhancing drugs. If any of these symptoms appear, it’s time for a discussion.
“Give your child time to cool down, and then talk it over,” says Giles. “Find out why he was so upset. Then reframe it—’What were the good things that happened on the field today? You didn’t win, but you did do good things. Can you name a few?’”
Most important, reinforce what is and is not acceptable behavior. “Kids need to learn that losing is an important part of playing too,” says Powell. “We learn things when we lose just like we do when we win, and children need to be good losers and good winners.” This, she says, is best taught at home. “Children look to their parents to know how to live. They take their cues from us. We set the tone in how they view competition.”
“Jake is just like his dad—he wants to win and hates to lose,” says Staudacher. “But one thing I appreciate about my husband is that he keeps it all in perspective. From the sidelines I’ll hear him say, ‘That’s OK, Jake. You can do it next time.’ And if his team loses a game, his dad focuses on the positive and reminds Jake how important it is to congratulate the winning team.”
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.
Making It Fun
Above all, remind your child that competition, when kept in the proper perspective, is a good thing. “When fun is the main emphasis, it is better for kids’ self-image and feelings of self-worth,” says Giles. It is better for their performance too. “Kids actually persist in something much longer if they do it because they enjoy it, rather than to obtain some goal—such as a trophy or medal. They will stick with it longer if you emphasize why it is fun.”
Powell agrees. “Competition can be healthy, but the real emphasis should be on having fun and learning new things—life skills such as teamwork and cooperation—that will carry them through life.”
“This is what I’ve been trying to teach not only Luke, but also his sisters,” Branson concludes. “That whatever they are doing—be it a swim meet, karate match, spelling bee, or a simple game of Go Fish—if they can walk away and say, ‘I had fun and did my best or learned something new’ they’re a winner.”
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