Use Sports to Teach Healthy Competition

by Jody Pawel

'Tis the season for sports -- when parents spend more time at playing fields or driving to games than they spend at home. At the game, parents enthusiastically cheer their child's team and discuss the game on the car ride home. While most parents have good intentions, they can inadvertently discourage a child and promote unhealthy competition if they don't choose their words carefully.

First, let's define the difference between "healthy" and "unhealthy" competition:

Healthy competition focuses on doing one's best, having fun, and learning skills. It promotes teamwork and positive participation. Those who give a strong effort and strive to improve themselves usually advance. If learning or improving is the goal, children always reach it. If they happen to win, it's icing on the cake.

Unhealthy competition focuses on winning, being the best, or being better than others. The pressure to win is more important than the fun of playing or learning skills. If children put forth their best effort but still "lose," they may still feel like a failure. They miss important lessons losing can teach them, because winning is the goal.

Three ways parents tend to promote unhealthy competition

1. "Let's race!" Many parents encourage racing to motivate children into action.
2. "The first one to finish wins!" Usually, the youngest or weakest child loses, which only discourages the child more. Racing differs from doing something fast with no winners.
3. "Let's see how many toys we can pick up before this song is over."

Comparisons: All comparisons promote unhealthy competition. Negative comparisons, like "I wish you could be more like John," are not motivating. They make children feel inferior and are discouraging. Children usually resent the other child, even if the child did not participate in the comparison. This increases the competition and rivalry between them.

Positive comparisons are also problematic. When we try to build children up by putting others down, we increase the child's ego, not his self-esteem. Children may feel sorry for the inferior child or feel better than the child in a conceited way. Children could also feel pressure to always be better than others.

Any time you are tempted to compare a child, remember this rule of thumb from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in their book Siblings Without Rivalry: Whatever you want to tell a child can be said directly, without any reference to another child.

Even when parents don't compare them, children may compare themselves as they compete for a place in the family or peer group. If one child is good in some area, another child might believe that role is taken and pursue something else -- even if they are interested in that activity!

When children compare themselves, focus on the child's feelings, interest or performance, not the comparison. For example, if a child says, "Susan's such a good violin player. I'll never be as good as she is," the parent can say, "How Susan plays has nothing to do with whether you should play or not. If you want to play the violin, do it!"

Being a poor role model: Most parents know that unhealthy competition promotes selfishness and poor sportsmanship. Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm, some parents model poor sportsmanship by standing on the sidelines yelling insults at their children and the referees. These parents teach their children to make excuses or blame others for their mistakes. They are also an embarrassment to their children and an irritation to other parents who want to be encouraging.

If you yell during a game, make it encouraging: "Way to go!" "Nice kick!" "Keep it up!" If you see something that needs improvement and can't keep quiet, tell children what to do in a positive way: "Spread out!" "Work together!" "Center it!"

After an event, restrict your comments to descriptions of how the child or team did well, made an effort, or improved. Don't focus exclusively on the score or outcome. If children bring this up, acknowledge their feelings and comment on their effort or improvement.

In the long run, families who focus on competition usually increase the differences and resentment among family members. Families who encourage best efforts, focus on skill improvement and doing one's best usually have children who are more confident and cooperative with others.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at Parent's Toolshop®'s archive.

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