Let the children play.

| Dr Ilse Ruane

Sport should be fun! Sport brings camaraderie, unity and happiness to people of all ages. But it’s greatest contribution is in terms of mental, physical and social development to children and adolescents. 

  • Staying active promotes good health. Research has shown that living an active lifestyle from a young age decreases the chances of serious medical conditions. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety and ADHD. It relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep betters and boost your overall mood. Therefore children that are keeping active, are managing their lives more effectively without even realising it. 
  • Physical activities can improve academic performance. Many research studies have found direct correlations between sport participation and academic performance. 
  • Children’s character and moral principles are formed through sports. Behaviours and values such as honesty, teamwork, commitment, respect for others and understanding rules are just some of the benefits of sport participation. In short sport is the playground for life. It also enables children to create friendships they otherwise might not have formed. They learn to be humble winners and to be gracious in defeat as well as how to come back from a loss, all the while building self-esteem. But perhaps more importantly they learn to respect authority, rules, coaches and team mates and opportunities. 
  • Sport gives children something productive to do. This is especially important as we battle with the fallout resulting from covid. During the past 2 years, children have developed bad habits concerning online screen time and technology use. Friendships have suffered as a result. It is a direct consequence of the context of Covid as children needed to become more and more proficient in the online worlds. However, now is the time to start turning back towards the real world where children interact in real life with others. The turning back to life can be rather daunting for both parents and children as sometimes we just do not know where to start. Sport is the easiest way to make this transition back as the ‘rules of play’ are established (there are rules of how to play soccer and everyone must play by those rules). Most importantly it’s fun. It shows the children that physically interacting with people again is fun, perhaps even more fun that interacting online.  

Competitiveness is not a bad thing. It encourages children to achieve their potential. It can foster skills that prepare them for adult life. It becomes a problem when winning is all that counts or when a child (or parents) is prepared to do anything to achieve that goal and gain parental acceptance. When the joy of the sport is taken away, we need to re-evaluate our approach to childhood sports. 

Teaching children to develop a healthy attitude to competition can be taught from an early age. It is important to allow children to experience the full range of emotions, negative and positive, that go with winning, losing and competing. But what are the consequences of being over competitive.  

  • Friendship problems: Children are forced to compete with and be judged alongside their friends. This is the reality of life but when children experience intense achievement pressure, children focus on winning and outperforming their friends. Arguments and problems within the friendships start to occur and soon this unhealthy competition creates negative peer interactions, such as jealousy, isolation and loneliness. 

Friendship problems can also start between the parents themselves. Parental over competition can drive wedges between the adults as well as the children. Over competitive parents may no longer be able to congratulate their friends or friends children because they won a race while their child did not win. Parents might even downplay other children achievements. These are all behaviours that their own children observe and will ultimately adopt. 

  • Loss of balance: Achievement pressure results in children spending many hours on training and working for wins. This leaves them with little downtime or just time to be kids. The balance between achievement and childhood experience becomes unbalanced. The children feel stress, as well as possibly burnout. It may sound ridiculous but children can experience burnout because of the undue pressure place on them to perform. 

Many children drop out of sports by high school. The pressure to be the best and always win is too much. Over and above stress and fatigue, injuries start occurring due to early sports specialization and over training while younger. Sadly the game simply is not fun anymore and the joy of the sport is taken away from the child.

Many children today face intense pressure to find what they are good at and succeed at it. Instead of taking the time to figure out who they are and who they want to become, children are forced to perform. We do live in very competitive times, where children may need to get bursaries or scholarships but we need to be mindful that these pursuits do not over shadow the pure enjoyment of the sport. Bursaries and scholarships are an added bonus but they are not the ultimate goal of sport participation.

  • Fast tracking: When kids are consistently forced to excel, they race through childhood at a fast pace, potentially missing important developmental tasks along the way. They also miss fun social events such as parties or sleep overs.

Children need time to practice social skills, to learn how to set and reach goals, to make mistakes and build resilience, and to develop their interests. Sometimes this may mean attending the party instead of going to Saturday training.  Again it is about achieving balance.

  • While we strive for wins, the reality is that many lessons are best learnt in defeat. The irony of the situation is that children, and adults for that matter, learn better from a defeat.  Defeats and mistakes create opportunities for learning and growth which are not present in winning.

As parents, the onus is on us to step back from the trap of over competition in childhood (and adolescence). Here are some approaches to promote a healthy balance in your home:

  • Foster positive behaviours. Children develop at different rates and achieve the developmental milestones at different times. Chances are that the tallest child in the grade will be the fastest swimmer, the early onset puberty boy will be able to throw the shot put far. But this does not mean the child who has not hit puberty or a growth spurts will not to achieve this once he reaches his own developmental milestones. Encourage children to understand that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and that these develop at different times in our lives. Each child needs to embrace their own journey. 
  • Do something other than competitive sport. Make time for family, friends and downtime. Strive for balance.
  • Resist the urge to fill each afternoon with structured activities. As parents, we pay a lot for school fees and extra murals therefore it is understandable that we would like to maximise what we get out of the school context. But when there is no time where a child can just be, we need to re-evaluate our schedules and perhaps admit to pushing too hard. 
  • Encourage your child to try a variety of sports instead of specializing in one.  Early specialisation does not necessarily produce sports stars.  We also need to remember that children develop at different rates. Therefore it may be the case that only after puberty is it possible to get a solid indication of talent or skill.  There are some “child stars” that can be identified early but these are few and far between. These so-called child stars will probably not continue passed adolescents as talented sports individuals because of the over competitive context of sport which includes over competitive parents, over training at a young age and due to loss of joy in their sport.
  • Promote non-competitive activities to balance out competitive ones. Encourage your child to participate in a range of activities. Team sports, solo activities, competitive and non-competitive (choir, music, art, scouts) interests so that the goal is not always winning. Encourage them to participate in these activities even if they are “not good” at them.  Foster the idea of “Don’t hesitate, participate”, try something that you are not automatically good at. How do we know what we are good at if we have not tried many things…
  • Teach healthy coping skills. It does not come automatically, children need to be taught how to be humble winners and gracious losers. To experience the sense of fulfilment that comes with trying your best as an individual and the experiences gained of working as a team. Sometimes the joy of the sports event is not to be found in their personal performance, but in being part of something bigger such as the teams achievement.  
  • Competitiveness does not have to involve other people. Avoid comparisons between children. Children may be taught to compete against themselves. The goal should be to “be a better you than you were yesterday”.
  • Focus on the experience by redefining success, failure and mistakes. If a child learns to only associate being “first” and “best” with acceptance and love from their parents, their self-esteem may suffer when they fail to meet these. And, if a child internalises the message that winning is all that matters, they may avoid experiences for fear of failure. On the other hand, a child whose parents do not support or encourage them enough may never fulfil their potential. Furthermore, parents who give up easily, make excuses or blame others when they do not succeed will pass on those habits to their children. 
  • Avoid participation trophies and do not orchestrate your child inclusion, they should be included on merit. Some parents and schools perpetuate the idea of participation trophies for all children. This sadly in also true for team selections at schools. In order to avoid parental fallout, schools may include team members who were not the fastest at the trails or are not the best players under the guise of ‘giving everyone in turn’. The reality of this approach or inclusion based on parental appeasement is that this is not how real life works. When orchestrating your child’s inclusion by that harmless suggestive email to the coach, be cognisant of the fact life does not give everyone a turn nor does life accepts emails from mom or dad. Parents who perpetuate these patterns are setting their children up for failure as this will not be to the benefit of your child in the long term. Sure they get the race this week’s meets but at a greater cost. If children do not make the team, we need to trust the process and assume that those included were included based on merit. We then need to go back to our children and assist them in working towards making the team next time.  By forcing the coaches hand to include a child when they have not made the team on merit, is doing them a huge disservice. They will not learn to associate effort with success. They do not learn how to work for something they want, and will enter adulthood as entitled adults. Furthermore, this will not only alienate the child from the coach and team managers, but the fellow team mates as well because children know who belongs on the team and “whose mommy or daddy went to complain”. Life is not always fair and it is better for a child to learn this from an early age in the safe, contained environment of home and school. Children need to be taught to work for their position on the team or train to be the fastest to achieve the top race spot. Participation, effort, motivation and trying your best should be rewarded but it is also important to prepare children for the reality of everyday life.  Life does not give participation trophies and not everyone makes the team. 

Parents think they want success for their children, but it many ways they want success for themselves. The logic behind my statement is, if my child is successful, on the sports field or at school, I am a good parent. This is nonsense. The measure of a good parents is not in the child’s reaction or results, but in how the parent behaves in times when things do not go as planned and how the parents respond/intervene. By focusing on winning, parents lose sight of school and sports being vehicles of learning. As a parent myself, I am reminded that we need to teach our children to strive for excellence and not perfection. Excellence is the attempt to perform a task in the best way possible while perfection is the definitive 100% right way of doing something. Therefore excellence is something we should all aspire to whereas perfection is seldom achievable. We, as parents should try to avoid the rat race of perfection and focus rather on effort and perseverance.