Is your competitive spirit getting the best of you?
By Linda Alberts
Competition may be one of the oldest urges known to humans. Our ancestors competed for resources like food and shelter. And although these resources are available today in excess for most, people still compete against each other for things that can be crucial for survival, like jobs and promotions.
We even seek out competition for enjoyment. People huddle around televisions during Super Bowl parties and gather at sports restaurants during the NBA Finals to watch the best of the best compete. And if a team from your area or hometown is one of the teams in the throes of battle, even better.
“Competition is a way for people to unite behind cities, regions and countries,” says Dr. Stephen Gonzalez, a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology who consults the mental side of performance with soldiers and athletes from the youth level to the Olympic and professional level. “There is romanticism with coming together to support ‘your’ team with other people.”
YOU AND YOUR CHILD
But what happens when the competition hits closer to home and the athlete on the field is your child?
Well, if you find yourself in a bad mood for the rest of the day following your child’s team losing a game, fellow spectators moving away from you as you shout coaching instructions from the stands or wonder why you care more about your child perfecting a specific skill than they do, your competitive spirit may be getting the best of you.
Youth sports are a means for education and child development, unlike the entertainment which results from professional sports.
“Youth sports provides space for children to grow by learning new physical skills, teamwork, time management and allows for physical activity, which is vital to long-term health,” says Gonzalez, also an assistant professor of sport psychology at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. “It’s ok for parents to enjoy competition in youth sports, but their focus should be on the child’s ability to learn.”
He says that the goal should be to develop leadership skills, learn the game, physical growth, maturation and reaching new personal bests.
However, sometimes the lines get blurred. In the quest to be a good parent and support their child, parents can focus too much on the external outcome of sports.
Julie Learner, a performance coach and licensed clinical social worker, has recently seen this scenario play out first hand. She once worked with a middle school softball player and her mother, who Learner said was a great mom but was a bit too competitive about her daughter’s athletic pursuits.
“When a parent is obsessively driven in their involvement in a child’s sport it causes a tremendous amount of pressure on the athlete,” Learner says. “This can cause athlete burnout or poor performance.”
And that’s what was happening to this young softball player.
“The athlete expressed guilt over these feelings, as her mother was a strong supporter of her and she knew her mom meant well,” Learner said.
Learner suggested the mother attend less practices since her daughter was feeling pressure and not doing as well as she was the previous season.
“This mother was exceptional,” Learner said. “It was a difficult conversation, yet she was open to hearing all I had to say and was willing to make a change.”
The mother’s new behavior paid off in a big way.
“Since this time, this young girl has experienced better performance and less difficulty with competition,” Learner said.
Learner has also noticed significant change in how the athlete deals with moments when she doesn’t perform well during competition.
“I believe that it was partly due to the fact she no longer has to deal with her mom’s disappointment of the regular setbacks that can and do occur as children learn and grow in their sport,” Learner said.
COMPETITION – WHAT IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT
It’s worth noting that, when thoughtfully carried out, competitive parents can help encourage their child to be a better athlete.
In the truest sense of the word, there is nothing wrong with competition. The definition of competition is to struggle and try against others for a prize. Today, competition is often seen as a bad word and associated with the win-at-all-costs mentality that plagues youth sports – but that’s not what competition is really about.
“Competition is a relationship between two or more people pushing each other to be at their best,” said Gonzalez. “Understanding that competitors are well-trained and motivated opponents who are there to challenge your abilities and your training – and not ruthless opponents – helps a person have a healthy competitive spirit.”
Through modeling, parents can teach their child how healthy competition fits in with respect, fair play and sportsmanship.
But of course, things can go wrong.
“Children are highly impressionable, so a parent who values competition may influence their child to also be competitive and focus on external factors, such as winning awards, having the best stats and beating other children at all costs,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez points to Andre Agassi as a prime example of a high profile athlete who was pushed at a young age to be competitive and eventually hated tennis. In his autobiography Open, Agassi reveals his childhood memories and how his father’s competitiveness took his childhood away from him.
“The problem,” adds Learner, “is when competitive parents fail to see a path of integrity that leads to winning in other ways, like lessons learned. Parents need to be cognizant of boundaries and pay attention to when the thrill of the win or the disappointment of the loss becomes too important to their own feelings about themselves and their lives.”
A recent study by Dr. Amanda Visek, an associate professor of exercise science at George Washington University, found fun as the No. 1 reason children participate in sports. Winning was toward the bottom of the list, and that’s something Gonzalez says parents need to keep in mind.
TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR COMPETITIVE SPIRIT IN CHECK
Gonzalez offers these tips to help parents keep their competitive spirit in check:
- Always ask your child, “Did you have fun today? What did you learn and what can you improve?” This orients the child to remember to have fun and to think of things they can do better. Asking, “Did you win?” is focusing the child on the outcome only.
- Create a list of things you would like to say during a game to encourage your child and write them down. Examine what you wrote and see if it focuses too much on the outcome or beating other athletes. If this is the case, rewrite them so that you can encourage your child to grow personally and reach new personal heights.
- Attend league meetings and talk to the team’s coach about the goals for the players and team. Understand the objective of your child being on the team and support the coach and league’s mission. Read the mission statement before every game.
- Talk to your child constantly and ask what he or she wants to gain from their sport experience. Help them focus on personal growth and listen to their goals. Support their goals and their successes and failures. Help your child understand that failure is a state and not a permanent outcome. Ask them what can be done differently so that the next time out the focus is to improve.
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