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Playing field or battleground: Can competition be healthy for kids?

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4 2012 4:40 p.m. MST

A soccer ball bounces between the racing kicks of a slim, dark-haired boy and his elbowing counterpart, landing between the posts for a winning goal. Parents cheer from the sidelines of the freshly cut grass field in Barrington, R.I.

"Good job boys, we won," Darius Shirzadi — the coach — says, bringing his team to a huddle. But the boys look less than triumphant: puckered lips, tears glistening upon their cheeks.

"He scored more than I did," protests one, the others echoing the same qualm: "I wanted to score the last goal."

Competition sometimes enhances performance. Equally often it deters it, an upcoming study finds. The competing findings on competition suggest that determining whether or not competition can benefit children may not be as important as teaching them a positive mindset towards cooperative competition.

"It's the posters, it's the video games, it's the SportsCenter, it's everything that glamorizes the unbelievable play or the outlandish win and the images of receiving trophies and the money they make and it's all wrapped into the idea that you're not successful unless you're winning," Shirzadi said.

A trophy society

In 1935, Margaret Mead, an anthropologist at Columbia University, spent several months with the Zuni and Iroquois people in North America and the Bathonga in South Africa. Her findings revealed that competition was essentially an obscure concept in many cultures beyond the U.S.

"We live in a trophy society," said Frank J. Sileo, licensed psychologist and author of "Sally Sore Loser," a children's book about winning and losing.

Awards are given for everything with the intention of building self-esteem, Sileo added. But if everyone gets one, they're empty awards. So there has to be one winner and the rest are losers. This is magnified in sports.

An estimated 35 million American children — enough to fill the new Yankee Stadium approximately 696 times — participate in organized sports each year, Michigan State researchers found.

Increasingly common are the hypercompetitive parents who drag their reluctant 4-year-old child to Little League games and football practices, shouting from the sidelines and initiating red-faced skirmishes with the referees, Sileo said. "They are teaching their children just one lesson: Winning is everything."

No bench warmers

Research has found, however, that children more often just want to play. When asked whether they would rather be warming the bench on a winning team or playing regularly on a losing team, nearly 90 percent of children chose the latter, Michigan State researchers found.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that age has gotten younger as sports in this country become more of a business," said Shirzadi — father and coach of two boys ages 9 and 10 — back on that field in Rhode Island.

Nine years ago, Shirzadi founded Project GOAL, a non-profit program comprised of sports professionals with one goal in mind: helping disadvantaged youths through soccer-related programs and academic tutoring.

Through this program, Shirzadi hopes to teach children that sports can be a positive thing that builds unity and skills and can just create good memories.

Kids today are expected to be miniature adults on the field, Shirzadi said. The pressure to achieve athletic success will cause them to burn out and drive them away before they learn what sports really should be teaching: self-esteem, a strong drive to improve, team unity and how to achieve goals.

Conditions of competition

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