In the heat of competition: Keep youth sports positive for adults and children

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

School sports are fun and the exercise is healthy, but competition creates emotional risks for children and adults, said Brittney Schrick, assistant professor and extension family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Schrick said, “Competition can also be damaging; it can make people feel hopeless and it can distract from the inner satisfactions of work and learning”

Keeping competition in a healthy perspective for kids is essential, Schrick said. There are several tactics parents can follow to encourage their children to participate in sports and other competitive events in a healthy manner.

Refrain from labeling

Some parents label kids unintentionally. Unfortunately, even positive labels can backfire.

“Researchers have made a surprising discovery,” Schrick said. “Even when we label children positively, it can make them nervous and less likely to try in the future. For instance, when we tell a child that he is a great artist, he may not want to create again lest he disappoint you.”

“Or when you tell a child that she is an excellent athlete,” Schrick said, “she may know that she can do much better. She may conclude that you are not honest or not very discerning.”

Don’t prioritize awards over fulfillment

Schrick said kids often measure their success with trophies and titles. They don’t place a high priority on inner accomplishments.

“Sometimes we place emphasis on rewards, recognitions, and trophies,” said Schrick. “All of those have their place but may not be very good lifelong motivators. The most reliable reward for our work is the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a task.”

Emphasize cooperation over competition at home

Schrick said home is supposed to be a safe environment for children. Embracing a spirit of cooperation rather than more competitiveness is one way to keep your home a calm environment.

“A competitive way to motivate young children to get ready for bed is to offer a quarter to one who gets ready first,” said Schrick. “There are problems with the approach. The older or faster child has an unfair advantage.

“Also, it causes children to think of other family members as competitors or enemies,” Schrick said. “A different way to encourage getting ready for bed is to suggest that you will have story time as soon as they are all in bedclothes and have their teeth brushed. This approach encourages them to help each other.”

Recognize the individuality of each child

Children need to know they are valued as individuals and are not compared to siblings, Schrick said. It should be evident that there is enough love for each child.

“Comparing children makes family life into a contest,” Schrick said. “It suggests that there is only so much praise or love to go around and only the best get any.”

“Rather than compare children,” she said, “it is better to enjoy each child for his or her talents. Even when a child makes a comparison such as ‘I’m not as smart as Susie.’ We can remove the comparison: ‘Susie does very well in school. Do you know what I enjoy about you? I enjoy your kindness. You are very thoughtful of other people.’ We can find good in each child.”

Allow children to cope with disappointment

Sometimes when kids are in highly competitive environments they experience downfalls because of a loss or mistake. This can take an extreme toll on children, Schrick said, especially if they are not allowed to properly deal with the disappointment.

“When children do not do well at a task — making a mistake in a piano recital or doing poorly on a test — we may not know how to help them,” Schrick said. “There is a response that usually helps. We can offer compassionate understanding. When our children know that working and learning are more important to us than winning, they are likely to be ready to learn more and worry less.”

Competitions can be stressful for adults too

Adults have just as many issues with their children’s competitive events as the kids themselves, Schrick said. Sitting on the sidelines might be too stressful for the child’s family.

“Watching a child or grandchild’s sporting event can be very stressful,” said Schrick. “When the stakes feel high, the stress goes even higher.”

“Parents and other caregivers may feel like they are living through the child they came to watch,” Schrick said. “They feel every moment of stress, joy, disappointment, and anger that the child feels, and maybe even some they don’t.”

Children might love to play sports, but if their supporters are acting out it could make the activity unpleasant, Schrick said.

“They love to play, and they love to have the people they love watch them play,” Schrick said. “When the people they love behave badly, it can add more stress to the situation through embarrassment, anxiety, disappointment, and added pressure. It also sets a poor example for the kids you came to cheer for.”

Competition is often part of everyday life, but there are ways to alleviate that pressure at home. For more information about a healthy environment for kids contact your local county agent or visit www.uaex.edu

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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