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Healthy Competiton and Young Kids

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As a young kid, I wasn’t a sporty gal; the intensity of competition got me down. Perhaps witnessing my dad getting red-carded at soccer games had something to do with it? Or maybe it was the pressure to perform that turned me off? Whatever it was, at about ten, I was done with sports. As an adult, I see that as a hole of lost opportunity. Recently, I played a game of ultimate frisbee, and was shocked that not only did I have some skill, and enjoyed the thrill of scoring, but it was tremendous fun: team bonding, good sportsmanship and the pleasure of moving fast, inhaling the scent of grass! Also, my little boy got in there and was ecstatic to play around with us fools.

This is what I want for my kids — to dive deep into the revel of sport, teamwork and athleticism instead of focusing solely on the big score. Luis Fernando Llosa, journalist and co-author of Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment, and “recovered” competitive coach shares his thoughts on competition and young kids. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

As parents, how do we manage/support our kids’ levels of competition during sports and games?

Parents of this age group (3-6), because the kids are so young, have the opportunity to set-up the experience of competition in a positive way – in a way that supports the growth of their kid/s. The alternative is potentially a dark path. Kids want one thing, and it’s connection with their parents. Second to that is parental attention, and then the third is parental time.

Here are a few critical guidelines to manage competition:

  1. Playing sports should be about having fun.
  2. Emphasize that your child do his personal best. That is more important than comparing himself to others, including you.
  3. When you play with your child, or watch your child play, the experience shared should be a positive one. So, after a game, or kicking the ball around, kids don’t want to hear criticism from you. They want to be uplifted and supported. For example, post-game, allow the discussion to be child initiated and led. During the conversation parents should not judge or make any general comments about their child’s performance.

How can parents get a handle on their own relationship to competition?

First-off, it’s the hyper-competitive parents that are causing the most problems for their children. Criticism and negative feedback degrades the parental/child connection. When parents imbue a sense of “win-at-all-costs” in their kids, everyone loses.

Parents benefit from looking inward to better understand their relationship to competition. Here are a few questions to ask to get to know your own “sports biography”:

  • During practice or a game, do you get emotional when your child kicks (or doesn’t kick) the ball?
  • What is your sports history and does it influence your child?
  • Why are you so critical after your child’s game?
  • What are your worst childhood sports experience and why? What are your best?
  • Why did you put your child into sports?
  • What do you hope your child will get out of this experience?
  • Are your goals for your child realistic?
  • What memories would you like your child to remember about you with regards to sports?

What about the influence of coaches?

Eight out of ten coaches don’t have a clue how to coach at the young age group we’re discussing. It’s not okay to yell and scream at five year olds. Also, coaches should not command-direct kids. Coaches should encourage the kids to play kid games. In fact, we recommend kids not participate in hyper-organized sports until they are 10-12. Young kids do not have the maturity to handle winning and losing correctly, and it could effect their sense of self-worth. Some kids just can’t handle defeat at that young age, and asking them to is expecting too much. Here’s a statistic to pay attention to: 70% of kids quit sports by the age of 12. Again, this is the age when they should start to play. Research points to successful athletes starting in their mid-teens. Starting kids early doesn’t mean they’ll succeed.

Kids at ages 3-6 should be playing with other kids under parental governance enjoying unstructured play.

How should parents deal with the influence of sports idols and the behavior they exhibit during games?

Parents should limit kids’ exposure to adult sports because they’ll see awful behavior, and young kids can’t discern between what is acceptable and unacceptable. If you as a parent want to bond with your kid by watching the game, conversing and talking stats – here’s the answer: go get a mitt and a mitt for your child – and play with your child. Connect that way. Parents need to prioritize. Is it connecting with your kid or watching sports?

As far as our sports role models – look at Alex Rodriguez (baseball player), he’s totally disgraced, Lance Armstrong (bicycle racer) – disgraced, Barry Bonds (baseball player) – he’s hated throughout the world and has a warped sense of self. Why? When these guys were kids, somebody taught them that winning was not only important, it was the only thing that mattered, and if you lost you were worthless. Do we want our kids to have this crazy ego?

Again, it’s the “win-at-all-costs” attitude, and pushing kids to develop at a young age that is detrimental to their development and healthy attitude towards sports.

What is a healthy competitive attitude?

You want to see your child enjoying the play and having fun. Encourage them to learn and grow and do their personal best. It’s not about scoring; it’s about having a good attitude and playing with the team. To this end, parents should not praise; no one should be saying “good job!” Say less, and multiply that by two! If you must praise, make it specific, like: “I love how you passed the ball to Katy, and Katy kicked it to Beth.” This kind of feedback is something a child can digest and learn from. As a parent, during the game, you can take note of the specifics and be ready to share them with your child. It will show you’re paying attention and taking their development seriously.

Okay, so in an ideal world, what should the sidelines be like at a kids’ sporting event?

The sidelines should be totally silent. If your child made a good pass, he knows it. He doesn’t need to hear it from the crowd. Praise should come from inside, not externally – otherwise we raise our kids to seek it out, and relying on praise from the outside world is far more tenuous than fostering the sense of confidence and praise from within.

What about the ubiquitous trophy, received for playing the game, having nothing to do with how well the child played — is that helping or hurting our kids?

This goes back to over-praising our kids. I don’t support it.

What’s the worst competitive attitude? How do we parents ease that?

A few signs your child has some problems with competition, are:

  • He’s too aggressive.
  • She cries upon losing.
  • He loses sorely – for example, flipping the board after losing a game.

For a child that’s “too” aggressive – put her in charge. Allow the child to be the assistant coach, and direct her to be encouraging and supportive, to teach slowly and carefully. This way the child learns how to treat others. This “aggressive” child might become warm, beautiful and helpful once given the privilege of serving as mentor and teacher. In fact, peer taught kids do so much better than adult taught kids.

How do we help our kids win and lose gracefully?

  • Parents are key in modeling how to win and lose. Stay conscious of how you’re reacting to competition, and winning and losing – and make sure you win and lose gracefully. When you win at a board game, don’t make a big deal about it, emphasize how much fun you had playing. If you lose, react similarly, and say you can’t wait to play again. Keep things light and playful and fun.
  • It’s common for parents with a passion for a certain team, to use the word “hate” when referring to the team’s rival. Don’t do that. That’s teaching poor sportsmanship.
  • Parents should never use smack talk – it sends a confusing message to the child, and can lead to all sorts of nasty behavior.
  • If your child is a sore loser or a gloating winner, a parent can say in a very soft, unaggressive tone, “winning feels good. We all want to win. But, this is not how we do things in our family. It’s about having fun and enjoying playing together.”
  • Also, parents who “don’t” play sports or have insecurities about the quality of their play, should play with their kids anyway. Play poorly! Your kids don’t care, because it goes back to what I was saying in the beginning which is your kids seek connection first and foremost. Playing loosey-goosey, fun and crazy is a wonderful way to bond. Your “talent” at sports is completely irrelevant.

What good do our children get out of competing?

We want our kids to enjoy the will of play and exercise. Competition is normal and healthy when done right. It can develop a child’s sense of self.

Luis Fernando Llosa is a writer, editor, speaker, investigative reporter, youth sports consultant and full time father-coach. He reported for Sports Illustrated for twelve years. His first book is Beyond Winning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press). Co-authored with Kim John Payne (Simplicity Parenting) and Scott B. Lancaster (former National Football League youth sports director), it is a candid, practical guide to help parents navigate the fanatical, results-obsessed world of youth sports.

Please share your thoughts/anecdotes/musings about this topic below in the comments section. We love hearing from you!

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