Emphasizing Competition Properly With Kids

It’s tough to know how much to encourage and challenge your kids without making it a “pushing and pressuring” negative. I think the best approach is to be a role model, as in, “Hey I’m going to the park to kick the soccer ball, wanna come?” I recently read a book called Sports Without Pressure (or something like that) where the psychologist/author said that kids are quite perceptive about what they want and don’t want, even at a young age. While their vocabulary and ability to convey complex thoughts and emotions is not there, it’s a safe bet that a kid who says, “I’m tired; I’m thirsty; Can we do it later?” is probably not too psyched to do what you are trying to encourage. And thus its probably not a good idea to cajole, beg, bribe or force them to do it.

This being true, I also think its okay to establish some rules and mandates that are fair and sensitive to your children’s needs, ability level and temperament. For example, “Before you watch TV, we have to go outside and get some fresh air and exercise. Would you like to go to the park or the playground? Or if they really don’t want to get out, negotiate again. “Okay then, you can stay in and read, but not watch TV.” Remember that kids have a natural desire to exercise, move and even compete. They also like to spend quality time with parents. Getting dressed in your sports apparel and setting up some cool sports/game equipment in the back yard, then actually engaging in the activity is a little different than saying, from your comfortable spot on the couch watching weekend football, “You kids are so lazy, you should get out there and exercise!” If you have no takers and start having fun by yourself, I’d bet you might see some little players soon join you.

Regarding the issue of how much to emphasize competition, I think we are making some serious mistakes and are seriously confused in kids sports (ahem, and adults sports) today. Unfortunately, our rat race world places so much emphasis on results and winning that it filters down to the point where kids who do not excel tend to dislike and avoid competition. It’s possible to make a serious, intense competition a positive experience for every single kid who competes, whether they place first or last.

The world is competitive and you can’t get discount or de-emphasize that. It’s okay to encourage and support competition, keep score, celebrate winning, ranking against others, being disappointed after losing and all the rest. However, its also important to emphasize the process over the end result. This doesn’t mean sugar coat things, as with the sometimes-criticized curent trend of always saying, “Hey you all did great, everybody is a winner, congratulations”. Kids are naturally competitive, they know what’s what and you can’t bullshit them. However, what you can do is take the losing soccer team and say, “Yep, we got killed again. The other team played great. And you guys did this well and that well and we’re going to keep working hard and improving.” The last place kid in a race can inspired to improve his previous best time, and so on down the line. Insist that kids focus on the fun and the process without negating or pretending the results don’t exist.

Then the negative self-talk we hear all the time from kids can be challenged and redirected honestly. If a kid laments, “I stink at soccer”, the solution is not to say, “No, no, no – you’re great!”; but rather, “It doesn’t matter your ability level, what matters is you have fun and work hard to get better. Let’s see if you can improve your dribbling with this fun cone game.”