Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

Fear of Failure…or What? 15 Reasons Your Child Refuses to Compete

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What makes some kids flee from competition? We asked experts what’s at work here—lack of know-how, low interest, wrong activity, fear of disappointing you (or themselves)? Meet the experts who weighed in on the topic: David E. Conroy, Ph.D., Professor of Kinesiology and Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, and Adjunct Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; Amanda Visek, Ph.D., Associate Professor of exercise science at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University; and Andy Driska, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and staff member within the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. Here’s what they had to say.
A little healthy competition is good for kids—except when it’s not.

Let’s go with a hard question first: Why do some kids refuse to compete in school or sports, while others can’t wait to stare down an opponent?

“When children feel that they are less than an ideal fit for a sport or activity, or think that others see them that way, they may withdraw from the activity. Feelings of shame or embarrassment contribute also and make it hard for children to engage in some activities. However, it goes beyond just being a shy child; extroverted kids can feel this way as well. What’s important is how they see the activity fitting into who they are. If they don’t feel that they’re fitting into an activity, then they won’t engage in it for long.” —Dr. Conroy Are those the only reasons kids avoid competition? “No. A child might be nervous about attempting something new, which is normal. A little encouragement from parents and getting kids involved in activities their friends are doing can be helpful, too. On the flip side, overzealous parents could be the cause of the apprehension, especially if the child has seen how his parents act with older siblings involved in sports.” —Dr. Visek And that’s it? “You need to determine whether a recent experience can explain your child’s fear of competition. A six-year-old child who doesn’t know the soccer basics and ends up with a coach whose focus is on winning, not fun, might get upset in a competitive situation. If she has a bad experience, every time she goes back to a field, or hears whistles, or puts on a uniform, she could think, ‘Oh, no, not this again?’” —Dr. Driska

I’m not sure when to introduce my child to competition. At what age do they “get” it?

“Kids don’t usually understand the concept of competition—that other kids might do something better than they do—until they’re seven or eight years old. Before then, their sense of winning is tied to their own accomplishments. Competition is important for adults, but if left to their own devices, it really doesn’t become important to kids until later. They should just be having fun and learning.” —Dr. Driska “Before age eight, most kids have an undifferentiated sense of self. There’s very little point to having a competitive league for five-year-olds, who would be delighted to just run around. They tend to think very positively about themselves—regarding everything. Around age eight there’s a change, and they start to understand what they are and aren’t good at. Part of this differentiation comes from cognitive development, and part of it comes from experiencing different types of feedback. They start to recognize differences between achievement and effort.” —Dr. Conroy

But some older kids still fall apart before, during, and after competition. What’s that about?

“If a child feels very threatened about what a loss would mean about her, she may be conflating the outcome of the activity with her own value. Self-worth should be completely separate from whether kids win or lose. Kids shouldn’t feel they have to earn approval through winning. We want each child to know he or she is a good person regardless of whether he or she won or lost.” -Dr. Conroy “When kids get older, their identity may be built around the sport, so competitiveness can become problematic. Let’s say a child around age 12 is in an individualized sport like diving or wrestling. If the child has really built his identity around being the best at that sport, losing can threaten his identity. The threat to the athlete’s identity can cause a lot of anxiety. It’s not necessarily a fear of competition; it’s more about anxiety of how his performance will affect his identity and the social relationships he has built.” —Dr. Driska So that’s all there is to it? Those are the only reasons? “The primary reason kids give for dropping out of sports and other physical activities is that it’s not fun anymore. This makes sense, since having fun is the strongest determinant of what keeps kids involved in sports.” —Dr. Visek