Unhealthy Competition

Help your child walk the fine line between healthy and unhealthy competition.

boys walking outside with soccer trophy
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A healthy dose of competition can be motivating, inspiring kids to work hard and try their best to reach a goal. But some take it too far. Whether it’s in athletics (formal or informal), academics, or some other activity, too much competitiveness can be harmful. Kids who are overcompetitive may not be getting the other benefits that sports offers. And worst of all, kids may feel they aren't worthy of your love or attention unless they're winning.

Do you see your child in these signs of unhealthy competition?

Your child might be too competitive if …

  • He frequently brags about his amazing accomplishments. This wraps up too much of his self-image into winning or losing—plus no one likes to hear it.
  • She’s a sore loser—sulking, making excuses, blaming others or throwing tantrums if she loses. Once again, no one likes to hear this, so it can alienate your kid from peers, coaches, and other adults. And it's poor sportsmanship.
  • He seems to be burning out.This kind of stress isn't healthy, and it can spill over into other areas of his life. He could become injured, or quit an activity he used to love.
  • She berates herself for every blunder. Besides being frustrating and demoralizing, this limits her chances to learn from mistakes.
  • He cheats or tries to stretch the rules.
  • She disses her opponents and even her teammates. Trash-talking is never OK.
  • He wants to sandbag, meaning play a less worthy opponent so he’ll be more likely to win.  This kind of victory is hollow and not motivating.
  • You’re convinced he’s the best player on his team/league/in the city/in the state. This kind of external pressure is hard for kids to handle and can really damage your relationship.

    You can encourage a sense of healthy competition by …

    • Providing the right kind of praise. Your responses to your child's competitions are important. Instead of complimenting him on a win, say you’re proud of his hard work, determination, teamwork, and so on. After a loss or a disappointing performance, remind him that it's an opportunity to learn. Help him think about what lesson he might take away, whether it's a specific skill he wants to work on or a more general sense of resilience.
    • Teaching her how to lose. When you're playing board games or backyard hoops, role model what it means to be both a gracious winner and an upbeat loser.
    • Avoiding comparisons to teammates, siblings, or friends. It's his behavior that is important to you, not anyone else's; he needs to know that you'll still love him even if he doesn't win every game. A corollary: Don't compare yourself to others, either!
    • Encouraging competing to excel. De-emphasize winning and losing in favor of personal development: setting and meeting goals.
    • Showing respect to competitors. This means no trash-talking in the stands or anywhere another child can hear you. At home, talk with your child about what she has in common with opponents—like a love of the same sport.
    • Enforcing downtime. Be wary of overspecialization and over-training, which place a lot of weight on the importance of competition (and have other risks, too).
    • Being involved, but not too involved. If you're too wrapped up in your kid's activity, your child will be too.

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