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

Researchers analyzed hundreds of research papers on the subject of competition and performance. Their findings, which are to be published in an upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, a journal of the American Psychological Association, showed that competition sometimes enhances performance, but sometimes it does not.

"There is good evidence that competition has a destructive psychological effect on children," said Alfie Kohn, author and speaker whose criticisms of competition have been widely followed in the field of parenting.

Kohn holds that children succeed in spite of competition, not because of it. "Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we're in a race — that without competition we would all become fat, lazy and mediocre. It's a belief that our society takes on faith. It's also false," Kohn wrote in No Contest, a book contesting the case of competition.

The vast pool of research, however, is dominated by experts whose arguments are less extreme. "Competition can have two contrasting effects on children's success later on in life, depending largely upon the circumstances by which competition exists," said David Johnson, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who did pioneering work on the conditions that make competition enjoyable and enhance performance.

Winning must be relatively unimportant, Johnson said. If the stakes are low, the emphasis is placed upon sheer enjoyment of the activity.

All participants must have a reasonable chance to win, Johnson said. "If you're playing volleyball against the two women who won their third or fourth gold medal in beach volleyball at the Olympics, you're not having very much fun because you know you don't have a chance to win and they could make you look very foolish."

There must be clear and specific rules, procedures or criteria for winning, starting and stopping, Johnson said. If a participant recognizes that the activity is fair, he or she is apt to not feel cheated. If it's ambiguous, Johnson said, a game tends to become destructive.

"Hypercompetitive people — people who compete in a very serious way — are typically unemployable; they don't have good friends; they don't have good marriages; they aren't good parents; they aren't good neighbors; and by and large they can lead very miserable lives," Johnson said. "It's a sure path to depression and unhappiness, to feel that you have to win every time, every place."

Competing off the field

The basic life skills learned in healthy competition can be developed in many areas beyond the sports arena, said Hilary Levey Friedman, psychologist and author of Competitive Kid Capital, an upcoming book about what kids need to succeed in today's highly credentialed and competitive world.

Parents can initiate games that involve luck and skill in the home so kids learn that even if they work hard and are the most skilled, it may not always work out.

Many chess competitions in schools involve a strong team element and teach values of sportsmanship, allowing children to work together in teams and shake hands before and after the match to show respect to their competitors.

Additional cooperative challenges that are more academically focused, such as the science Olympiad and robotic competitions, require cooperative competition and allow children to learn how to perform in front of others.

Ballet, ballroom, orchestra and choir can help children learn how to work with others and bounce back from a loss to learn how to recover in a safe way and in a loving environment, Friedman said.

"Of course, everyone wants to win; it feels good to win at something," Sileo said. "But nobody wins every time. Whether it be that they don't get accepted to the college of their choice or they don't get the house of their dreams or they went for a job interview and it fell through, equipping our kids with the skills to be a good sport and a team player and a cheerful participant will lead to much greater success and happiness later in life."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

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