Fostering Healthy Competition in Children
Competitive individual and team sports are a ubiquitous part of childhood. The benefits are well understood, but sport participation can also present several challenges. Providing your child with proven performance psychology strategies can help them navigate some of the psychological and emotional obstacles that may arise.
The benefits of competitive sport
There are many reasons to encourage your child’s participation in competitive sport. Other than the positive impact physical fitness can have on their health, research highlights that key benefits can include (Eime, et al., 2013; Hansen, et al., 2003):
- Learning important team-building, problem-solving and social participation skills
- Improved cognitive function and motor coordination
- Learning that healthy competition is a natural part of life and that effort can lead to success
- Improved general motivation and engagement in other activities
- Increased self-esteem – there are many valuable lessons in both winning and losing
- Mood stabilisation – participation may help protect your child from experiencing low mood and depression
- Reduced risky behaviour – sport provides a structured and supportive environment as well as an outlet for expression.
Arousal Regulation Module
Children aged 10 to 16 will learn how to use arousal regulation to boost performance.
Signs of excessive competitive sport
While engagement in competitive sport has its merits, there can be considerable risks when young athletes commit to a single sport year-round with little downtime. Research suggests that emphasising outcome goals (winning) instead of process goals (participation and personal bests) can have negative consequences. According to Brenner (2007), this can lead to:
- Burnout: Psychological, physical and hormonal changes associated with burnout - or overtraining syndrome - can make children feel tired and unenthusiastic. This can negatively affect their sport performance.
- Overuse injuries: If a child is unable to adequately rest and recover due to the pressure of competition, they can injure a bone, tendon or muscle.
- Loss of interest: Negative experiences early on can reduce the likelihood that your child will engage in future physical activity. Watch for phrases like “It’s not fun anymore!” and “I don’t care.”
How to foster a love of healthy competition
Whether you’re a supportive parent or a sport coach, the following strategies can be used to help create a positive experience and give children a greater sense of wellbeing when engaging in sport. As seen in Quirky Kid’s award-winning performance psychology program, Power Up, techniques such as visualisation and self-talk can help children build their confidence, learn to cope with the pressures of competition and maximise their performance.
Expectations are normal in the realm of competitive sport, but rather than framing expectations in terms of “winning” and “losing”, it’s beneficial to frame sport participation as a form of leisure time or social engagement for your child.
For example, use dialogue such as, “You looked like you had a lot of fun playing soccer with the team today!” Highlight personal bests and growth rather than focusing on winning. For example, “This week you swam to the flags. That’s longer than last time – great work!”
You can also emphasise the importance of your child following through with a commitment once they’ve started. Statements such as, “I’m proud of you for playing your best all season!” are really encouraging.
Visualise the event
If your child gets nervous leading up to a game, mental visualisation or imagery exercises can be really helpful. For example, if your child is running a race, have them imagine each stage: You walk up to your lane, bend down, take deep breaths, push off the ground and quickly take the lead, remembering to breathe as you continue to charge through the race.
Imagery can help your child practice mental aspects of their training between training sessions and gain performance confidence as they rehearse competition scenarios more often. Imagery can also be used in combination with self-talk (see next point) to enhance performance.
Self-check and use positive self-talk
Teaching your child to self-check is a two-part process. First, they should check in on physical nerves. Having your child assess their immediate physical state can help them identify and manage the physical symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heart and shortness of breath.
The second part of a self-check involves your child reflecting on their thoughts. Is there any self-doubt arising as the event or game gets closer? If so, encourage your child to try replacing these unhelpful self-talk patterns with helpful ones. For example, if they’re thinking, “I’m going to lose the game and be a huge failure”, encourage them to replace it with, “I’ve trained as much as I could and I’m going to go out there and try my best.”
Positive self-talk has been shown to help athletes and other performers to manage their emotions and improve their focus around performance situations.
The pep talk
Pep talks are an important component of competitive sport. Whether led by a parent or coach, these talks are often the last step before the event starts and the words can leave a lasting impression. The goal is to inspire children and motivate them so they’re ready to compete without placing unnecessary pressure on them.
Recent research suggests that the best pep talks are those that follow a competence support approach (Fransen, et al., 2017). Put simply, a pep talk should encourage your child to focus on improving their performance and reflect on positive times already encountered in previous games rather than thinking only of winning. Framing a pep talk in this way improves children’s sense of team unity and increases their intrinsic motivation (self-motivation) to compete.
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View article references
- Brenner, J. S., & Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Paediatrics, 1199(6), doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-0887
- Eime, R. M., Young, J. A., Harvey, J. T., Charity, M. J., & Payne, W. R. (2013). A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(98). doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
- Fransen, K., Boen, F., Vansteenkiste, M., Mertens, N., & Vande Broek, G. (2017). The power of competence support: The impact of coaches and athlete leaders on intrinsic motivation and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(2). doi: 10.1111/sms.12950
- Hansen, D. M., Larson, R. W., & Dworkin, J. B. (2003). What adolescents learn in organised youth activities: A survey of self-reported developmental experiences. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 13(1), 25-55. Doi: 10.1111/1532-7795.1301006