By Denise Morrison Yearian
Competition can sharpen kids’ skills and drive them to achieve their personal best. But when undue emphasis is placed on winning and excelling, it can be detrimental to a child and his relationship with others. As a result, the child may become reluctant to attend lessons, programs or games, or they may want to stop going altogether. Likewise, he may develop an unhealthy view of competition.
As a parent, you can help steer your child’s experience in a direction that is positive, fun and can teach valuable life skills.
Watch for signs. While it is normal to show disappointment in a bad play or lost game, if a child’s view of competition is unhealthy, parents may need to intervene and communicate what is and is not acceptable behavior. Signs this may be happening include intense anger or crying, an abundance of negative self-talk, overly anxious about competing, cheating, withdrawal from friends and other activities, un-sportsmanlike conduct, and/or using performance enhancing drugs.
Talk through frustrations. If your child is upset about losing a competition, give him time to cool down before talking things over. Then find out why he was so upset. Reframe the situation: “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?” Let him talk it out. Highlight his strengths and share how losing is an important part of playing too, and we learn things when we lose just like we do when we win. Remind him that competitions are meant to be fun, and failure isn’t fatal.
Emphasize fun. When fun is the main emphasis, it is better for children’s self image and feelings of self worth. It is better for their performance too. Studies show kids actually persist in activities much longer if they participate because they enjoy it, rather than trying to obtain a trophy or medal.
Consider the coach. Attend and observe your child’s programs to make sure the coach or instructor is being fair and promoting fun, participation and cooperation over competition and winning. If he isn’t, talk with him. Remind him of the children’s ages and diplomatically tell him you think he is focusing too much on competition. Sometimes people just need to have it pointed out to them. If things don’t change, talk with other parents and see if there is a supervising organization you can speak with. Go up in the ranks if you need to.
Avoid comparisons. Encourage your child to always do his best and compete against his own best performance, not against others. Be careful with personal comparisons too. Negative comparisons make a child feel inferior. Positive ones build a child up while putting others down.
Compliment publicly; criticize privately. Give fair and accurate feedback. If, during a competition, your child performs poorly, be honest but offer feedback in a positive way. Rather than say, “You did terribly today.” say, “You can do better next time.”
Set goals. Encourage your child to set attainable goals by breaking down larger goals into smaller ones so he can feel a sense of accomplishment along the way. Have him monitor and chart progress then celebrate little successes along the way. Just make sure these goals are child driven, not adult driven.
Praise efforts. Emphasize fun, cooperation and teamwork over competition and final outcome. If his team loses, focuses on the positive and remind him he needs to be a good loser and a good winner. Encourage him to congratulate the winning team.
Look at yourself. Analyze your own feeling about your child’s participation in the activity. Children take cues from their parents and set the tone in how they view competition. If it is a sports program, be sure you don’t emphasize winning over sportsmanship, physical development, skill and fun. Also watch your expressions and body language as these can send powerful messages. Be realistic. Keep in mind his age and developmental level.
Be his cheerleader. Provide support and encouragement and let your child know you love him no matter how he performs.
Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.