Imagine having your child on a team playing in this month’s NCAA basketball tournament. Thrilling, right? (So long as your child doesn’t break a leg!)

Now imagine that your child doesn’t play a single minute.

No reason to be embarrassed, because even if your child isn’t a star player like Brittany Griner or Trey Burke, he or she is developing crucial life skills—some of which are even more attractive to employers than superstar attributes.  While it may be hard at times, in some ways it may be more advantageous to be a benchwarmer than a superstar.

I’m a sociologist who spent close to two years studying 95 families with elementary school-age children who compete in chess, dance, and soccer, research that is the basis for my forthcoming book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. During that time I interviewed parents, kids, and their teachers and coaches, and I observed the ways in which being the highest achiever could sometimes be perceived as a negative for other children and their coaches.

For example, when dancers from one dance studio appeared on a national talent competition television show, parents of other students from the studio left. The studio owner reported that despite the dance school’s public success, their enrollment did not go up because families worried that their own children were either not good enough to dance there or that they would not be “stars” and receive enough of the teachers’ attention.

This is the wrong attitude for several reasons. If your child loves an activity, and is intrinsically motivated to succeed, you should let them stick with it even if they aren’t the best. Sending the message that you should only do something if you are number one sets up unrealistic expectations for life. Additionally, you never know when they might peak and become a star.

Additionally every team—whether it is athletic, artistic, or academic—needs members who support the others, strengthening the glue that holds the team together and making the group more successful as a whole. In some contexts individuals may excel, and in others they may fall short. Children need to learn how to adapt to both situations. They also need to learn how to handle loss and bounce back to win in the future.

These skills are part of what I label Competitive Kid Capital™. Competitive Kid Capital is based on the acquisition of five skills and lessons: (1) internalizing the importance of winning, (2) bouncing back from a loss to win in the future, (3) learning how to perform within time limits, (4) learning how to succeed in stressful situations, and (5) being able to perform under the gaze of others.

Being part of a team is also a key component. One mother I met told me that her daughter always “has” to play a team sport, even if she isn’t the best.  This mom knows that both colleges and employers look for students who not only can excel as individuals in some settings, but who can be team players in other contexts. She went on to explain: “When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done.”

Her experience is consistent with what sociologist Lauren Rivera found in a recent study of elite employers. Those employers not only rely on a degree from particular universities to signal employability, but they also pay attention to extracurricular activities, especially team sports. Now they aren’t looking for everyone to be the MVP—instead, they are looking for those who make commitments and stick with them, can support others, and also survive and thrive in high-stakes situations. In other words, they are looking for resilient team players.

So while Burke and Griner may both be gearing up for the upcoming NBA draft, someday their bench warming teammates may be running the draft, or running companies that oversee some aspect of the NBA championships. It’s a good reminder that being a member of the second string can help make you first in life, even if you aren’t first on the court.

About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D.

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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