Is Competition Good for Kids?

The word competition is derived from the Latin word competere which means come together, however in most countries throughout the world it has taken on a different meaning. ‘Dog-eat-dog’ is a better way of describing how many people view competition nowadays which is fine for adults but not ideal for children.

Children can have a great time playing competitive sport but it has to be handled well. Losing time after time can lead to ‘Learned Helplessness’ as child development guru, Rae Pica puts it in her book ‘Your Active Child’. This is not how we want our kids to feel.

Some research suggests that competitive spirit is learnt, which flies in the face of received wisdom. ‘Born winner’ is the typical epithet used to describe someone who prevails on a regular basis. Pre-schoolers are more likely to opt for co-operative play than competitive play but they can just as easily adopt a ‘this is mine’ attitude when it suits.

My personal view is that competition amongst children can be a real positive part of a child’s life but it needs to be well managed. In tennis there is pressure to be winning from an early age. There are Leaderboards for Under 9s & under 10s that are hard to ignore & as a parent & coach it’s easy to get sucked in to the ‘more is better’ philosophy.

The problem with this is that many children are ill equipped emotionally to withstand the psychological demands that this can bring & personally I don’t think it matters long term, what level players are when they are that young. I believe it has little bearing on the level they’ll be playing at in say 10 years.

Competition managed badly can foster a ‘win at all costs’ mentality which leads to cheating & dishonesty. Placing any kind of pressure on a child to win will induce poor performance, anxiety & eventually low self-esteem. We have to choose our words carefully. If kids sense an expectation to win & then lose, they will feel as if they’ve let everyone down. “Practise your shots” is infinitely preferable to “you need to win this one”.

The secret is to promote the idea that competing is about development & not winning, ensuring the players are competing at the right level with the right frequency. They need to experience some degree of success so if they’re not winning they are probably playing at a level that’s too strong.

I use competition in lessons to stimulate & motivate. I also run internal & external tournaments which provide structure & a greater variety of opponent. During lessons, playing points immediately increases the intensity of all the players, even the ones who profess to be ‘”non-competitive”. It’s a great way of getting players to practise a particular shot or set piece without them having to do drills.

My son plays football & tennis competitively so I asked him for his take. Unsurprisingly he prefers winning to losing (takes after his father!) but he said he plays sport because it’s fun.  He’d rather play & lose than not play at all. He just likes playing & that for me is the essence of sport. Sports have rules & scoring systems. Competition is the inevitable by-product of this & it can be a force for the good or otherwise.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the international Olympic committee summed it up perfectly. “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well”.

We need to instil these values in our children if they are going to get a positive experience from competing.