Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

Take the Fear out of Competition

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Got a child who shuns competition? Boost her spirits, support her efforts, and let her choose the game, says our panel of experts: 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.
Losing stings and self-doubt is worse, but these smart moves on your part can turn your kid’s loss into a gain!


Parents worry that competition is bad for children. Is it detrimental? Is there reason for concern?

“Competition isn’t a bad thing at all for children—it’s how they interpret competition that counts. Do they feel pride, anger, joy, sadness, or anxiety? These moments create an opportunity for parents, teachers, and coaches to help kids learn to deal with those emotions, how to process their feelings, and how to manage their feelings in the future. Competition creates a tremendous crucible for emotional development.”—Dr. Conroy

If that’s true, are you saying competition is good?

“If children aren’t exposed to any competitive activity, they may be set up for problems later. There’s competition all around us—you can’t avoid it. Competition is a big part of what motivates people—it pushes them to want to do something well. Kids can learn to deal with the stress that competition creates. What matters is how parents put competition into perspective. They can teach kids what it means to win, and what it means to try your best and not win.”—Dr. Driska

But doesn’t fun count, too?

“Our research indicates that kids define fun as being composed of 11 factors: trying hard, positive team dynamics, positive coaching, learning and improving, game-time support, games, practices, team friendships, mental bonuses, team rituals, and swag (like cool sneakers). Kids also say what makes these activities more fun for them is when their parents show positive sideline sportsmanship, are encouraging, and congratulate them for playing well. They also like getting compliments from other kids’ parents.”—Dr. Visek

So, what should you do if your kid hates competing? Have some tips?

“Celebrate the hidden wins buried inside the losses. Ask questions like, ‘Did you improve along the way? Did you try your hardest? Did any new strategies work for you when your usual approach wasn’t working?’ Look more at the process instead of the outcome. Get out there and teach your kids, and encourage and support them, instead of being passive observers. Those little reinforcements can make a big difference.”—Dr. Conroy

Any other ideas?

“Steer clear of reinforcing comparisons between your child and others. If kids are compared to older kids or faster kids or more experienced kids, it’s setting them up for failure. That can be particularly harmful for kids who are sensitive to embarrassment, and who are setting their own value based on how they compare to other kids. Instead, focus on how your child is getting better and showing improvement. Also, talk about the fails and the flops. When parents focus only on success and don’t discuss the challenges, a child may think his participation is only worth talking about when he does well. It’s really important to treat the wins and losses the same way.”—Dr. Conroy “Simply asking about the score and who won or lost takes the focus away from the process. Kids can have a lot of fun competing hard in a game and not necessarily win. Instead of just asking who won, adults can help create a healthier climate by asking kids, ‘What was the most fun about the game?’ or ‘What’s something new that you learned in practice today?’”—Dr. Visek

Let’s talk about finding the right activity—one that best suits your child’s skills, abilities, and interests. And then, how often and how intense?

“Early on, kids should sample many different types of activities. Don’t sign them up for deep commitments until they’ve developed a sense of whether they enjoy the activity. During the sampling phase, there’s value in sticking through a few rough days where the activity isn’t going how they want it to. Parents can say, ‘We’re going to try it out,’ or ‘It’s only for a month,’ or ‘Let’s see if next time is better.’ But if they don’t like it after that short sampling period, move on. There are plenty of activities out there.”—Dr. Conroy “You certainly don’t want to emphasize competition too much early on, and you want to let them learn to love the activity, whether it’s sports or music or art. It can be anything they’re passionate about. Look for a program that has a learning focus. Check it out with other parents. Look for a coach who draws out skills in all the children, as opposed to someone who emphasizes, ‘Win, win, win.’ Look for programs where coaches are more like teachers. A good coach has the ability to do things that parents can’t do; the parent supports, and the coach motivates them to achieve.”—Dr. Driska “Talk to your child and get to know what she enjoys and what might be fun for her. It doesn’t have to be organized sports. If she doesn’t have a preference, present her with an array of options and let her select one. It’s really about being open to fostering your child’s love of something, and letting that ‘something’ be what the child defines for herself.”—Dr. Visek