Helping Your Kid See That Sports Is More Than Just Winning

By Nancy Justis, Iowa Youth Sports Initiative

"My son has been overly competitive and super focused on being 'first', 'the best' or 'winning'. If they're hiking... he wants to be in the lead.  If they're playing a game, he wants to be first.  If he's on a sports team, he only wants the best players to play or touch the ball so that they win. How can I help him see there is more to the game than winning?"

PCA Response by Lead Trainer Kelly Kratz

This kid sounds pretty typical of a very talented, athletic kid that has been praised for being the 'best' his whole life (all 6-8 years of it) and it's now the expectation he has for everything.  This is a pretty textbook case of a "Talent Trap". One of the 'traps' that many parents fall into early is overly praising their very athletic or academically strong child. We are proud and want the child to know it!  We want our child to have confidence and so praising the great accomplishments is a very simple way to do it. However, the problem begins when only the "accomplishments" are praised, not the "effort" that it took to get there. (Can you tell I am speaking from Experience!?)  My third child was also a victim of this trap. For us, the change came one summer when she played travel lacrosse and she was one of the worst on a very competitive team.

This type of attitude of wanting to be the "best" all of the time is inherently a good trait. The negative part is when that child is not the best; how does he handle it? That is where the parent/coaching comes in.  It's easy advice to say, "provide the child with a challenge that can result in failure and allow him to grow and learn from it", but that is easier said than done. However, there are many daily opportunities to bring up concrete examples of a past experience when he wasn't the fastest or the best.  For example, "Hey Ryan, do you remember when you couldn't dribble a ball down the field without losing control?  Do you remember when you could barely hit the ball off the tee?"  Provide him with a learning opportunity to look back and appreciate his effort and the process that was put in to working on that skill and putting his performance into perspective. An exercise at practice where you can "even the playing field" would be a drill or a game where the kids have to rely on their (weaker) teammates in order to accomplish a goal (Think 3-legged race or buddy tag).

Another way to refocus a child on the process rather than the outcome is to praise the heck out of him for a specific 'good effort' that you have seen when he loses.  PCA calls it "Rewarding Unsuccessful Effort".  Set up a really difficult drill where he would not be able to "Win".  Then praise him for getting back on defense, rushing into the goal for the rebound, or sprinting through first base even if his hit was caught in the outfield.   Something else I have tried is the buddy system where the more talented kids on the team pair up with a weaker skilled player, but they are the expert.  Don't do this for an entire practice but for one or two drills it is really helpful.  Then praise the improvement that the less talented kid has made.

If a team can redefine the word "failure" and ask the kids often to share their mistakes or failures in a 'shout out' type forum, the results can be very powerful.  The kids will notice when a player is given extra attention from a coach because they admitted where they not only made a mistake, but what they LEARNED for the next time.  It's a daily practice that I do at the end of every practice or drill before the ending cheer. The kids look forward to it believe it or not.

Coaches and parents have more influence in this area than they realize. Especially coaches where they can manipulate a drill so that the more skilled kids may not get the ball or have the opportunity to dominate a play. If a child is competing against his own team rather than building up those around him it will not result in many wins on the scoreboard. In order for a team to succeed all player have to be in the habit of making those around him better!

I once had a 'ball hog' player that would not pass the ball to anyone else on the team but a few select players. I pulled her out and reminded her of the phrase "There is no 'I' in TEAM".  She responded by saying, "I know coach, but there is an "I" in WIN and if we want to do that I need to have the ball the most".  I then politely explained that that attitude will not be very helpful when she is sitting on the bench. She got the message quickly!