Healthy competition is a great character-builder in school-aged children. Lessons include gracious winning, graceful losing, teamwork, fairness, working hard and sometimes even studying hard. Opportunities for competition abound; during the school year there are spelling bees, sporting events and sometimes also talent contests. Extracurricular activities make it possible to enjoy competitive team sports and even local or national competitions, as is the case with gymnastics or swimming.
Of course, while a competitive attitude might already naturally be in the blood of a child, doing it the right way takes training. A look at the sidelines of any peewee soccer game quickly proves that competing can bring out the worst in people – usually the adults. So how does a parent go about teaching a child to compete? The answer is a four-fold approach.
Winning does not justify the means. It is not okay to intentionally foul or injure another player to gain an advantage. Fair play trumps any on- and off-the-court conniving.
Cheating is unacceptable. Nudging a ball into an easier position, taking a shot after the play has been called, enhancing play equipment or – in middle school or high school – doping should all be discussed during the elementary school years. As the children grow older, the peer pressure to succeed and win also increases, and a child who understands early on what is – and what is not – acceptable is more likely to make good choices when mom is not watching from the side lines.
Easing off the pressure. This is a step to take by the parents. Far too often, moms and dads apply more pressure than children should (or can) handle in a competitive setting. Private lessons, endless backyard drills and a practice calendar that is filled to brimming with activities are the hallmarks of the parent who just needs to take a step back.
Reward fair play, not wins. The winner gets the trophy, ribbon or plaque, but parents will be wise to reward the player who displayed fairness, self control and team work. It does not matter if it is a spelling bee, talent competition or swim meet, the parent must make every effort – even if junior comes in last – to find and reward incidents of these qualities. While the trophies garner dust and ribbons get lost, the lessons learned from the praise for good choices will last a lifetime.