Our youngest child recently told us he wants to play baseball. Since our older two have never shown interest in playing sports, this is new territory for us. On the one hand, we’re thrilled. There’s no question that sports offer numerous and significant benefits for kids, from staying active, to gaining discipline, to learning to work as a team.
But part of me worries. Is the intense competition that goes along with modern youth sports good for young people? I know sports can be physically and mentally healthy, but what about the emotional and psychological impacts?
In digging into this topic, I’ve found that the answer to that question depends on how competition is handled both by coaches and by parents. There are positive and negative approaches, and much of it comes down to our understanding of what competition actually means.
When Competition is Unhealthy
We’ve all heard, or seen for ourselves, stories of parents at soccer or Little League games angrily yelling at coaches—and even at young players. Organizers of youth sports now post signs reminding parents and spectators that the kids are just playing a game, that they are not trying out for a professional-level team. Sadly, sometimes even coaches themselves can take an unhealthy approach to competition and winning, doing real damage to kids’ confidence and love of the game.
That’s what can happen when competition is simply viewed as a contest to see who is best. When the goal of competition is to beat your opponent, prove your superiority, and win at all costs, pressure tends to mount. Coaches can push too hard, parents can invest too much, and kids can lose the sense of fun and challenge that sports are supposed to engender.
But competition doesn’t have to go down that path. There is another way that can lead kids, parents, and coaches to success in sports without placing hardcore, negative pressure on our children.
What It Really Means to Compete
Last year, I sat down with Pete Carroll, head football coach of the Seattle Seahawks, and talked a bit about competition, among other things. For those who are unfamiliar, Pete Carroll is one of the most successful coaches in football today. He came to the Seahawks with an impressive winning record (97-19) from his coaching stint at USC, and has built Seattle into one of the NFL’s most dominant teams. Since he titled his book about his approach to coaching “Win Forever,” it would be natural to think that Carroll is all about winning. But he’s not. He’s all about competing, and his view of competition is one that parents and coaches of kids can benefit from.
For Carroll, competing really isn’t about winning; it’s about doing your best, maximizing your own potential, and striving to get to the next level. He almost never talks about winning as a goal with his players. The Seahawks practice hard and play hard. They constantly seek improvement. They focus on discipline and mindset, all in the pursuit of a competitive edge. They know that if everyone on the team is always competing—striving to be and do their best—winning will take care of itself.
This vision of competition—one in which winning is almost an afterthought—can be found in the etymology of the word “compete.” It comes from the Latin competere, which means, “to strive together.” At its core, competition is more about the journey than the destination, more about the process than the product. It’s a continuum of improvement and a continual effort to get better. It’s about working, not winning.
In this view of competition, the primary person you’re always competing against is yourself. How can you be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, a little bit more accurate than you were yesterday? Opponents are appreciated and respected, as they are the ones who help us compete. They aren’t the enemy; they are co-competitors who push us to get better.
This approach to competition also leaves plenty of room for enjoyment. Hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive concepts. Pete Carroll is known for having high expectations of his players, but also for keeping the atmosphere of the team light and fun. He plays practical jokes and encourages playfulness. He tells his coaches not to yell at or put down players. He knows that people perform better when they feel confident and secure in their place on the team, and keeping morale high is a big part of that.
What Parents and Coaches Can Do
As parents and coaches, we can help keep sports healthy by taking Pete Carroll’s approach to heart and explaining to kids what competition really means. We can focus on the character qualities that sports can hone—perseverance, discipline, mindfulness, teamwork—and praise kids’ efforts in those areas. We can help them improve their skills and find ways to maximize their unique, individual potential. We can focus on each kid’s strengths and honor what each one brings to the team.
We can remind kids, with our words and our actions, that sports are supposed to be fun. And we can shift the focus from winning to competing, from the destination to the personal transformation of the journey. If Pete Carroll can do that with intense athletes at the professional level—with excellent results—we can certainly do it in youth sports.
Kids will still want to win, of course. Who doesn’t? But if we shift the focus to competing instead of winning, understand that competing means to continually strive for improvement, and internalize the idea that when we compete in this way winning will take care of itself, we can keep sports healthy for everyone involved.