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Healthy Competition

Why Being Competitive Isn't Bad for Your Child

June 2012

Geoff Cole knows a thing or two about competition. His son, Taylor, 18, plays Varsity football; his oldest daughter Lindsey, 16, is on a cheerleading squad; and his younger daughter Meghan, 13, plays both lacrosse and select softball. Between these three children, Geoff has seen what a little competition can do for kids – and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

My kids are constantly "striving to do their best," says Geoff. "They set personal goals for themselves and follow through." He adds that sports have helped his kids understand the importance of setting – and achieving -- goals.

"With my son, in seventh grade he went from being a backup player on the second team of the squad, to a starter on the Varsity football team by his Junior year. He drove himself to that position. He had a goal in mind that he set for himself." Geoff says that, while all three of his children are competitive on the field, this competitive drive isn't really present elsewhere.

Competitiveness has a bad rap in our society, especially with regard to kids. The term "competitive" has become synonymous with undesirable traits such as aggression, belligerence, and general "out-of-line" behaviors. However, according to Dr. Brian Culp, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Indiana University Purdue University, competitiveness is simply "an inclination to compete based on a set of circumstances presented. These circumstances are generally provided by an outside entity or created by the child."

Most experts agree that, in children, this drive to compete begins anywhere between four and seven years of age. As a parent of four kids, Geoff's observed that children compete "constantly," whether it is "among siblings for their parents' attention, with their peers in the classroom, or with teammates or opponents on the field."

"Competition helps kids grow," says Dr. Culp. Competitiveness can be tied in a healthy way to a drive to learn, to try new things, and to learn how to handle failure. Healthy competition helps to establish the foundation for kids to grow, he states.

More specifically, says Dr. Culp, competition allows children to learn about their abilities and limitations. "Competition is beneficial for children as they learn social skills in communication and teamwork. It helps to breed confidence and competence in an area, problem-solving skills, and understanding of different roles." Lastly, competition "can be fun and highly enjoyable, making the task something that a child will continue," he says.

Geoff has certainly seen the benefits of healthy competition with his kids. For starters, all three kids picked the sports they're currently participating in, and continue to play based on enjoyment and "seeing improvements" in their skills. Furthermore, his kids "frequently come to (my wife and) me wanting to do things to better their games. They choose what programs they want, and we put things in place to help."

However, there is an ugly side to competition – and it generally happens when the child's team loses, or some sort of goal is not reached. Explains Dr. Culp, "Competitiveness can become harmful when the outcome is focused on the result and not the process. Children subjected to this can often lose the spirit of what competition is." He adds that, in this scenario, kids can "become perfectionists who are afraid of failing. They can have feelings of self-doubt and a lack of self-esteem. They could also cultivate an inner fear that makes them cautious about taking any sort of risks, or trying something new because they are not the best at it."

However, for Dr. Culp, the flip side of experiencing loss is that, "competition helps children deal with the reality of not getting everything they want." Furthermore, it helps them recognize their limitations. Dr. Culp adds, "We have been conditioned in society to believe that having a limitation is a negative, instead of understanding that we are all persons with diverse talents." Winning – and losing – are part of this learning process.

Admittedly, this can be a difficult balance – something with which Geoff has definitely seen kids struggle. With Meghan's softball, he's seen girls breaking down on the field. "They've been in tears," says Geoff, "because of the call of a play, or being taken out of the game."

The experts agree that adults send a powerful message when it comes to competition. Adult messages about competitiveness are very powerful. "Parents should encourage their child to compete against themselves, and stress the process of competition and reaching their own potential. It is helpful for parents and their children to not define success in terms of winning and losing and eliminate comparisons to other children," says Dr. Culp.

Finally, "Children need to know that parents are in their corner, win, lose or draw. Competition, if promoted and executed effectively, is an appropriate means of developing a well-rounded child who is ready to take on the challenges of life," opines Dr. Culp.

Geoff adds, "Let the kids choose what they like. Try to introduce them to new things. Support them. When kids have this framework," Geoff says, "they'll naturally strive to do their best."

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