#25 – Competition and Sportsmanship Through Youth Sports

Defining Competition in Youth Sports

Competition should be managed like a prescription drug. It's really great for creating certain chemistries, but there should be warnings on the label. Mis-use or overuse of competition can be bad for your health. In this article, we explore the concept of competition in youth sports and share some perspectives from both sides of an ongoing argument. 

Competition by itself is neither good nor bad. It is simply defined as the activity or condition of competing. It's how we frame competition and how we implement it that makes the difference between constructive competition vs destructive competition. 

Sport can contribute significantly to international, national and local efforts to give children a healthy start. Sport can help those who haven’t received a good start, and equip youth with the information, skills, personal and social resources, and support needed to make key life transitions successfully.

An image of two olive branches encircling a radar screen with the world on it

United Nations Sponsored Report

"Sport for Development and Peace"

As with all things, we have choices. Taken in moderation and in the proper context, a wide variety of the things we sample in life are healthy. Apples are good for us, but eating a dozen in one session will give us a stomach ache. Non-steroidal anti inflammatory medications can reduce swelling and pain, but ingesting a bottle at one time will kill our liver. Making a soccer match competitive can push every player on the team to perform at their best. Making that same match too competitive or make it competitive off the pitch (between parents and coaches), and feelings can get hurt, bad behaviors can be brought out, and kids can be driven from he game altogether. 

It is our responsibility as adults to understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy competition - and how to communicate competition (to give it context). We have to place and maintain a healthy wrapper of safety around our players to ensure we don't introduce unhealthy competition or messages into the mix. A dad booming across the field to "Take that kid out!" or someone exhibiting celebratory behavior when a player from the opposing team gets hurt: these are two examples of  unhealthy competition and unhealthy messaging that can negatively affect our kids.

Car rides home can be equally toxic. When mom or dad is bad mouthing the referee or the coach, building excuses for a loss or pointing fingers for something that didn't work out the way we wanted - each of these behaviors contribute to an unhealthy dynamic that our kids can and do pick up on and internalize. They carry those behaviors forward in life and can become overly critical of others, of themselves, and/or fail to take responsibility for their own actions. 

Benefits of Healthy Competition

  • check
    Drives us to learn at a faster rate and perform at a higher level
  • check
    Teaches us to bring our best effort
  • check
    Helps us to manage nerves
  • check
    Teaches us not to fear competition
  • check
    Teaches us to take risks
  • check
    Teaches kids how to cope when things don't go their way
  • check
    Helps kids with goal setting
  • check
    Teaches kids good work ethics
  • check
    Teaches kids to play by the rules
  • check
    Teaches kids to win and lose with grace
  • check
    Teaches time management
  • check
    Competition can build self-esteem
  • check
    Competition can teach commitment
  • check
    Building esprit de corps
  • check
    Competition can help kids to perform better in school

​Risks from Mis-Use

  • check
    Unhealthy Performance Pressure
  • check
    Inappropriate feelings of superiority
  • check
    Self esteem tied to sport performance
  • check
     Deep diving into one sport can limit exposure and athletic IQ
  • check
    Overuse injuries
  • check
    Losing the "fun" in sport, ultimately driving kids away from athletic activities by their mid-teens
  • check
    Poor examples of sportsmanship. Showing kids the wrong way to behave
  • check
    Objectifying players for the sake of sideline entertainment
  • check
    "Adultizing" kids well before their time
  • check
    It can lead to demoralizing or bullying behavior
  • check
    Delusions of scholarship opportunities
  • check
    Strained relationships with parents
  • check
    More focus on "WHETHER" kids win vs "HOW" kids win

The positives work when we, as adults, get deliberate about framing competition in a healthy way. If the coach or the parents are too focused on whether or not kids are winning, rather than HOW they are winning, the scales begin to tilt in the negative direction. "

"Wake up out there!," "What's wrong with you?!," "You're benched if you miss that ball again!," "If you're not winning, you're a loser!" 

These are all examples of words we might hear flowing out of coach's and parent's mouths. Can you see how this might lead to some of the items I've listed in the Risks column above? 

Take a look at the video below that delves into the subject of winning at all costs. 

Being Positive About Competition

We can have competition and character development at the same time. Achieving this kind of success is accomplished by adjusting the focus on what we define as a win. If we chose to look at HOW we win vs WHETHER we win, this becomes an easier task. It's just a matter of defining some of the "hows." 

If, for example, we define a win as leaving it all on the field, accomplishing the objectives we practiced in training, and coming away with some really strong lessons learned, then a "win" is suddenly within reach of every player on the field. Winning becomes achievable in every possible circumstance - provided we hit our marks on effort and perspective - and I mean REALLY hit our marks on effort and perspective, not just paying them lip service or using "we gave a good effort" as an excuse for poor performance. 

This is a much harder "win" criteria to coach or recognize because it's not binary. It requires coaches and parents to actively look for evidence of effort and perspective - rather than taking a shortcut by simply asking "what was the score?" 

The difference between winning and succeeding...

"You can lose when you out score somebody in a game, and you can win when you're outscored."  

John Wooden  //  Coach, Professor, and Author of "They Call Me Coach"

Burning Bridges and Killing the Enemy

As a former member of the U.S. Military and as someone who has read The Art of War by Sun Tzu more than a dozen times, I believe that there is a time and a place in human interactions for burning the bridge behind us and committing with everything we've got to killing the enemy. I think there is value in training a kind of all-in, take no prisoners, Spartan Greek "Ή ταν ή επί τας" (loosely translated "Come Back Victorious or Come Back Dead") mentality - for young adults preparing to go off into battle. Entire civilizations have survived or perished in direct correlation to their level of commitment to winning at all costs on the battle ground. I get this. 

I do not, however, see a healthy place for a kill the enemy spirit in modern youth sports (emphasis on "youth"). When I see civilian soccer coaches, soccer moms, and soccer dads kicking over lawn chairs and bringing this level of intensity to the sidelines of a youth soccer field, I would probably find it funny if it wasn't so sad. The effect it has is head turning, and it's place is on a battle field where the rules are to destroy.

Youth sports fields are for development and growth. We're training kids to be teachers, lawyers, artists, astronomers, and engineers. We're not teaching them - nor would soccer moms and dads be qualified to teach them - to be warriors. 

Viewed through a development lens, I ask myself how we want our kids to behave in modern civilization. Do we want a generation that supports, challenges, and lifts one another up, or do we want a generation of people who don't respect "the other guy," and do everything they can to win... cutting others off in traffic, or kicking the one who's down. 

Pride in Your Own Team

But what about feeling proud? Should we suppress those feelings of pride and friendship that come from winning games as a unit? 

Absolutely not! Some of the most powerful memories I have are of winning County swim competitions in New York where I grew up. The feeling of excitement, love for our team, and group celebration for working our butts off and walking away champions... it's a powerful thing for kids and adults alike to be able to draw from that emotional memory later in life and use it to teach others, to motivate ourselves to win again, etc. 

What I'm saying is: don't embrace pride at the expense of others in youth sports. Help our kids to dig deep to find respect for the opponent who elevated them to that winning position. They busted their butt too! If they hadn't, the victory we feel would be hollow. Their efforts pushed us to deliver our best. Their hard work made our victory all the more potent. Be grateful! Celebrate WITH them and do not take them for granted. 

How To Win Well

  • check
    Demonstrate gratitude and respect for opponents
  • check
    "We did great today!"
  • check
    "Their keeper really got a workout today. That dude is awesome!"
  • check
    Thanking your opponent for giving you the chance to play
  • check
    "What could we do better next time?"
  • check
    "We're an awesome team when we play well together!" 
  • check
    Switching to other training points when the score is lopsided. 

How To Win Poorly

  • check
    Doing the "L" Dance in the direction of the opponent
  • check
    "We totally crushed those losers!"
  • check
    "We sent their keeper home crying today." 
  • check
    Laughing at your opponent
  • check
    "We would have had even more points if JJ didn't whiff the ball!"
  • check
    "We are better than everybody!"
  • check
    Running up the score to embarrassing levels 

My mother hung this poem in my room as a kid. It was bounded by a blue wooden border on the top and bottom, and hung by a white thread over a nail. For a period of time, I forced myself to stop and read this poem each day to myself before I left my room in the morning. So much of what I learned and believe about life was informed by this poem. I find these words appropriate once again. It took me a long time to think about and realize what this one line means:

"If you can meet with triumph and disaster And treat those two imposters the same..."

​IF - 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

- Rudyard Kipling, 1865 - 1936

Resources and Recommended Reading For Listeners of This Episode

Invite others to Join our Community!

The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.