Article by Justin Coulson. See his Happy families blog here or follow Justin's twitter.
In preparation for an interview with a newspaper, I have been reviewing some research about children's involvement in sports, and how competition can affect their interest.
Is competition bad for children? Should kids be fighting it out for competition points? And is it ok for there to be winners and losers on the sports field?
One of the key reasons this has become an issue is because some sports clubs are now changing their emphasis away from competition for younger children. The argument goes that when young children are exposed to competition and the prospect of losing, their interest in sports will diminish. When the competition is not emphasised, the sport is played for fun, skill development, and social support.
Studies indicate that the main reason children play sports is for 'fun'. This is good news. They're involved for intrinsic motivations. All of the best research confirms that when we are motivated for internal reasons, we'll stick at something longer, and enjoy it more, than if we are motivated for external reasons.
Evidence suggests that by the age of 15, up to 80-90% of children will have given up competitive sports. It's particularly common in adolescence, and especially in girls. So perhaps moving away from competitive focus is useful.
I have written previously about why competition can be bad for kids.
However, should we stop exposing our kids to competitive sports?
Sports, by its very nature, is competitive.
A more detailed look at studies in this field suggests that playing competitive sports can be good or bad depending on a couple of important factors. First, the focus and motivation, and second, the feedback. In BOTH cases, the parents are ultimately responsible for whether a child's experience will be positive.
Focus and Motivation
Children who are focused on participating for challenge, fun, competence, and social support enjoy their sport and are not negatively affected by the competitive element.
Children who are focused on winning are most likely to be negatively affected by competition.
The main reason for this is the emphasis on mastery and learning in comparison to what I call 'ego' involvement. When our motives are based on success, a setback or failure can be demoralising and saps a sense of competence. Conversely, when our kids are in it for what they can learn, and to be with other people who also love the sport, winning and losing become less relevant.
Parents and coaches who emphasise doing your best, winning, and other competitive elements may be doing their kids a disservice in their efforts to promote good outcomes.
Parents and coaches who emphasise trying new things, practicing a new skill, working together, or enjoying the experience and more likely to promote a long-term commitment to, and passion for, sport.
When feedback is negative, sense of competence and autonomy is reduced and children like the sport less.
When feedback is positive, or at least encouraging, children like the sport.
So, is competition good or bad?
It depends. But since sport and exercise are good for us physically and emotionally, and we can gain great social support from them, participation should be generally encouraged. What matters is that our focus is on learning and development rather than on winning, and that our feedback and conversation is less about criticism and more about encouragement.