We all love to see the emerging talents of our children. We watch them intently; our hearts beat a little faster when they do especially well; and our hearts sink when they do not. It’s human nature! But imagine what’s going on in their heads? The elation of winning and the despair of losing are often magnified to a higher level in a young person’s mind.
In the United States, organized youth sports attract over 36 million children and youth from ages 5-18 annually according to the latest statistics. Almost over 5 million participate in gymnastics. When children join a sport, the competitive spirit kicks in. They want to be the best – or they want their team to be the best. The desire to win can be intense even in leagues where no score is kept. Without a doubt, everyone knows who is the ‘winner’ and who is not. Some children thrive in the challenge – others become disenchanted when they are not among the ‘best’ and move on to other interests.
But there are other measures of achievement that are just as important! And if they are recognized and celebrated, more children would ‘hang in there’ and work toward their personal best. I believe that if young athletes can learn to love athletic challenges that lead them to personal excellence – then they have gained a valuable lifetime perspective on winning and losing.
Of course, every child loves to be among the best (just as most adults do), but there are so many other benefits that can be gained and recognized by participating in organized sports. This is just as true in gymnastics as it is in soccer, basketball or baseball. Having fun, making friends, getting exercise, learning new skills, dealing with both success and defeat are all important life lessons. When competition is intense, children’s coping skills are often tested, and unless they have developed goals for themselves that relate to their personal development, they can be seriously demoralized if they can’t ‘win.’
Our gymnastic program inspires our athletes to push forward to set a new personal best every day. This has nothing to do with winning but everything to with developing personal pride and self-esteem. We emphasize hard work and perseverance that yields the kind of success that gives them the courage and resolve to rely on their own inner gifts as they push themselves to excellence.
Too many athletic activities are so results-oriented that the focus is on ‘did you win’ rather than ‘did you have fun’ or ‘how do you feel about your performance today.’ I believe that competition is neither good or bad. It just is. What makes it good or bad is how players internalize it. If winning is the only focus of youth sports, competition can be toxic. It’s more important to challenge children to become the best version of themselves.
That being said, competition teaches kids to put forth their best effort. It teaches them to take calculated risks and be able to cope if these risks do not work out. It helps them set goals and develop self-confidence and resiliency. It gives them opportunities to follow rules. It offers a sense of community or ‘esprit de corps.’ So – competition has important values, but the crucial ingredient should somehow be how you win rather than whether you win.
My message to you is to encourage your children to definitely participate in athletic activities, to always play fair, to develop personal goals for success, to enjoy the fun of being with their friends, and to understand this is a wonderful opportunity – but not the only opportunity – to ‘win’ in ways they never before imagined.