Many parents have difficulty knowing where to draw the line between their child’s developing competitive spirit and their own desire to have their child win. Some parents are enthusiastic about winning to the point of being disappointed and even upset when their child loses in sports. Parents who react this way are often unaware of the negative impact they can have on their child’s ability to succeed and therefore win. Unknowingly, a parent’s overly zealous attitude can intimidate a child who is still figuring out how winning, being skilled, being a good team member and displaying good sportsmanship all interact. For a child, the intersection between pleasing a parent and adopting their own perspective on winning and losing is often a balancing act. In fact, the research indicates that a child's performance may even be hindered by overly competitive parents because of the child’s internalized anxiety brought on this additional stress.
There is research to support that young children begin playing sports without a strong sense of winning or losing. Parents who are able to successfully support their child's athletic involvement do so by providing logistical and financial support, giving positive feedback and reinforcing the value of teamwork and skill mastery. These parents allow their children to develop their own sense of competitive spirit and they are careful not to influence this process.
In our goal oriented culture parents do acknowledge their own interest in having a child “win.” Aware parents stop themselves from asking questions like, “Did you win? What was the score? How many goals did you make?” They recognize that the evaluative nature of these questions can be intimidating to a child. What if the answer is negative on all three counts? It is not easy for a child to report bad news to an overly invested parent. I have known of children lying and reporting false, good results in order to avoid disappointing a parent. After all, parents are the people children aim to please most.
Here are some tips on how parents can promote a healthy view of competition and allow their child to develop their own sense of winning and the losing:
- Moderate their questions about winning, losing and goal scoring after a match. Of course parents want to know, but holding that thought is often better until the child volunteers the information.
- Allow the coaches to make the determination about a child’s skill level, team assignment and playing time. Let the coaches provide suggestions on how to offer positive support. Accepting guidance from kids’ coaches is comparable to accepting it from their teachers.
- Consider and respect their child’s motives for wanting to engage in sports. There are many children who are not primarily motivated by winning. Their love of the sport and their desire to be with their friends as part of a team may trump victory. If they win, great! But team affiliation may be primary.
- Recognize and overcome any motives that are not aligned with the child’s desire and interest in playing sports.
- View competition as an aspect of team sports, not more or less important than the other components. Making competition more significant impacts performance negatively because of the stress it places on a child to win instead of playing well, having fun and learning through the process.
For more tips and research go to TrueCompetition.org, a website founded by David Shields, assistant professor of educational psychology at St. Louis Community College.