How Can You Promote Healthy Sports Competition?

“I made more goals during my game than you did in yours,” Bill remarks to his brother, Tom.

“Well, I kick the ball better and overall I’m a better soccer player than you,” Tom states defensively.

“No way, everyone knows I’m the better soccer player” replies Bill

“Who are you fooling?  You know I’m the best!” Tom argues.

Sandy, their mom, is tired of hearing all this talk about who is better than who and then it ending in a big argument.  She wants her sons to be proud about the effort and hard work they put into practicing and playing on their soccer teams, but their competition in sports is driving her crazy!

If you have a child involved in sports, you may find you are spending more time at playing fields or driving to games than you are spending 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 sports competition if they don’t choose their words carefully.

First, let’s define the difference between “healthy” and “unhealthy” sports competition:

Healthy sports 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 sports 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.

There are three ways parents tend to promote unhealthy sports competition:

“Let’s race!” Many parents encourage racing to motivate children into action. “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. “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.

To promote healthy sports competition , 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 sports 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.

For more tips and solutions on healthy sports competition and more information about The Parent’s Toolshop®‘s unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system. Get the 7 Keys to Parenting Success ebook. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly and feel more confident in any parenting situation.

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Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees international network of Toolshop trainers. She has 30 years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She has interviewed many parenting experts on her Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website,

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