Competition: Is it Good or Bad for Kids?

competitive kids with medals

There are those who think that competition erodes self-esteem, interferes with learning, ruins peer relationships and causes undo stress for the young athlete.

And this is absolutely true.  Competition can erode self-esteem, interfere with learning, damage relationships and cause stress.

Others will argue that competition is good for kids because they need to learn that they will not always be the best, they need to develop resilience, they need to learn to win and lose with grace and they need to strive to be better.

And this is absolutely true.  Competition can teach kids that they aren’t the best, it can develop resilience, it can teach sportsmanship and it can cause kids to push themselves to improve.

How can these two opposing view points be true?  Simple.  Competition is neither good nor bad; it is we who make it one or the other.  It is what we choose to focus on when talking about competition that alters the outcome positively or negatively for the kids who are competing.

Competition, the word itself is from the Latin competere “to strive together.”  So, really, when were are competing we are striving with others to be the best version of ourselves.

Where competition gets tricky is when we are too focused on winning and not sufficiently focused on the process.  When we place greater emphasis on the result than we do on the road to get the result is where competition can become toxic.  The ends do not justify the means, especially when we are talking about the development of a child.  So, if being part of an All-Star team means playing hurt or winning a gold medal means training with a coach who is abusive, competition has taken a turn to the dark side. 

Another time that competition can go wrong is when we go to the other extreme of believing any difficulty or disappointment our child encounters is an awful, damaging moment.  I don’t like to see anyone I love in distress.  Yet, I know that from struggle there is growth.  Kids need our help in coping with the big feelings that come from frustration and disappointment.  When we teach them how to navigate these icky feelings and they see that they are able to overcome set backs, we actually build our children’s self-esteem.  The key is that we need to guide them. 

Next, competition can be damaging if we teach our kids to be more concerned with being number one than being a good friend and coachable athlete.  For instance, I have two athletes in my club both who were top contenders to win a championship level meet.  Right before the meet, their coach changed some elements in their routines which inadvertently caused each girls’ routine to earn an automatic .5 deduction.  By costing each girl a full half a point, both were knocked out of the All-Around race.  Understandably the coach was both embarrassed and devastated that the error hurt the athletes.  But the girls’ responses could not have been better illustration of why competition is great for kids.  They understood their coach made a mistake, that sometimes mistakes happen and that while it was disappointing, it was not a tragedy, and that their relationship with their coach was more important to them than a medal.  These girls are 11 years old, and this is their thought process.  Yes, I’ll be telling this story, well, forever.    

Finally, competition can be destructive when a child believes that his or her value as a human being is tied to his or her ability to win.  Parents who withhold affection if a child performs poorly or who lavish on praise and gifts if the child does well send the message that their child’s worth is from his or her performance.  Parents who stress that they are proud of their child no matter the result, who appreciate effort over outcome and who praise their kids for being good sports no matter the result are shaping their child’s character in a positive manner and giving them a secure base of love and affection for simply being themselves. 

If parents and coaches choose to use competition as a tool for developing happy, healthy kids with good character, competition is great.  If, on the other hand, the adults allow competition to be the master and the measure of success, then it is toxic.

Remember: competition is neither good nor bad; it is how we approach it, the importance we place on it and the story we tell ourselves about it that makes it so.