Fostering Healthy Competition in Kids

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Posted on by Zoe Barnes

Competitive individual and team sports are a ubiquitous part of childhood. The benefits are well understood, but sports participation can also present challenges for both kids and parents alike. Preparing your children with strategies for good mental game-play will help them navigate some of the emotional and social obstacles that may arise.

What Competitive Sports Can Teach Your Child To Foster Healthy Competition in Kids

There are many reasons to encourage your child’s participation in competitive sports. Other than the positive impact physical fitness can have on your child’s health, research highlights that additional key benefits from healthy competition in kids can include (Eime, Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013; Hansen, Larson, & Dworkin, 2003):

    • Teaching children important team-building, problem solving and social participation skills.
    • Improved cognitive function and motor coordination.
    • Helping your child learn that healthy competition is a natural part of life and that effort can lead to success.
    • Improved general motivation and engagement in other activities.
    • Boosting self-esteem – there are many valuable lessons in both winning and losing.
    • Mood stabilisation – participation may help protect your child from experiencing low mood and depression.
    • Decreasing risky behaviour – sport provides a structured and supportive environment, as well as an outlet for expression.

Risks in Overdoing It

Undoubtedly, you want your child to succeed in life, and sport is no exception – but in your eagerness are you perhaps pushing your child too hard?

While engagement in competitive sport has its merits as outlined above, when young athletes overwhelmingly commit to a single sport year-round with next-to-no downtime, there can be considerable risks. Research suggests that putting too much pressure on a child and emphasising outcome-goals (winning) instead of process-goals (participation and personal bests) can have negative consequences. This can lead to (Brenner, 2007):

  • Burnout – Negative mental, physical and hormonal changes, can make children feel tired and disinterested. This can actually lead them to them perform worse in competition.
  • Overuse injuries – If a child is unable to adequately rest and recover due to the pressure of competition, they can injure a bone, tendon or muscle.
  • Loss of interest – Negative experiences early on can reduce the likelihood that your child will engage in future physical activity. Watch for phrases like “It’s not fun anymore!” and “I don’t care.”

How to Foster a Love of Healthy Competition in Kids

Whether you are a supportive parent or a sports coach, the following approaches can be used to help foster healthy competition in kids and give your little one a greater sense of well-being when engaging in sports.

Strategy #1: Modify Expectations

Expectations are normal in the realm of competitive sports (and of course you want your child to succeed), but rather than framing your expectations in terms of winning and losing, it is often more beneficial to frame sport participation as a form of leisure time or social engagement for your child.
For example, use dialogue such as,

“You looked like you had a lot of fun playing soccer with the team today!”

Highlight personal bests and growth, rather than focusing on winning. For example,

“This week you swam to the flags. That’s longer than last time – great work!”

Emphasise the importance of your child following through with a commitment once it has been started. Statements such as,

“I am proud of you for playing your best all season!” are really encouraging.

Strategy #2: Visualise the Event

If your child gets nervous leading up to a game, mental exercises like visualisation can be really helpful. For example, if your child is running a race, have them imagine each stage – Walking up to your lane, bending down, taking deep breaths, pushing off the ground and quickly taking the lead, making sure to remember to breathe as you continue to charge through the race. 

Tasks like these will help your child prepare for every aspect of the race or game ahead of time (Quirky Kid, 2018).

Strategy #3: Teach Your Child To Self-Check

One way to promote healthy competition in kids is to teaching your child to self-check is a two-part process.

First, check in on physical nerves. Having your child check in on their immediate physical state can help them identify and manage the physical symptoms of anxiety.

The second part of a self-check involves your child reflecting on their thoughts. Is there any self-doubt arising as the event/game gets closer? If yes, encourage your child to try replacing these unhelpful thoughts with more helpful thoughts.

Strategy #4: The Pep Talk

‘Pep talks’ are ubiquitous in competitive sport. Whether led by a captain or coach, these talks are often the last step before the event starts, meaning these words leave a lasting impression. You want to inspire the children and motivate them so they are ready to compete. Be careful, however – there is a fine line between pumping children up and placing unneeded pressure on them.

Recent research suggests that the best pep talks are those that follow a competence support approach (Fransen, Boen, Vansteenkiste, Mertens, & Vande Broek, 2017). Put simply, a pep talk should encourage your child to focus on improving their performance and reflecting on positive times already encountered in previous games, rather than thinking only of winning. Framing a pep talk in this way improves children’s sense of team unity and increases their intrinsic motivation (i.e. self-motivation) to compete – so be sure next time to give this approach a go.

If you notice your child experiencing negative emotions, which are persistent and detrimentally affecting your child’s ability not only to engage in competitive sport, but to effectively function in other areas of life, it may be indicative of a more serious, or potentially more pervasive issue. Here at Quirky Kid, we implement an award-winning program, Power Up!®, designed to enhance mental resilience and performance in young athletes. Should you have any concerns about your child, or are interested in helping them maximise their sporting potential in a healthy way, please don’t hesitate to contact our friendly reception on (02) 9362 9297.

For a better understanding of the PowerUp Program visit: Performance Psychology For Kids

References

Brenner, J. S., & Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Paediatrics, 1199(6), doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-0887

Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., & Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing the development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(98). doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-10-98

Fransen, K., Boen, F., Vansteenkiste, M., Mertens, N., & Vande Broek, G. (2017). The power of competence support: The impact of coaches and athlete leaders on intrinsic motivation and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(2). doi: 10.1111/sms.12950

Hansen, D. M., Larson, R. W., & Dworkin, J. B. (2003). What adolescents learn in organised youth activities: A survey of self-reported developmental experiences. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(1), 25-55. Doi: 10.1111/1532-7795.1301006

Quirky Kid (2018). Power Up! Retrieved from https://childpsychologist.com.au/service/workshops-info/power-up/

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