Winning Isn’t Everything
Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science
2007. Revised February 2017 by author.
Organized sports provide teens with an excellent opportunity for learning important skills and values. However, many parents worry about how their children handle winning and losing. A healthy balance of competition, cooperation, and having fun is important whether the child is competing with himself or against others. Parents and caring adults need to work at creating an environment in which their teens can compete in a healthy manner.
Why Participate in Sports?
For teens, a critical part of learning the important skills and values that organized sports can teach is found in observing the ways adult role models — parents and coaches — behave in relation to the players and the sport. Researchers have identified several ways that sports participation can influence a teen’s attitudes, values, and behaviors (Weiss & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2009).
- When coaches and parents emphasize playing their best, never giving up, learning new skills, and having fun more than scoring points, teens can begin to develop positive values about winning and losing.
- When teens see adult role models encourage team members to do their best and support each other while accepting each player’s abilities and limitations, teens can learn respect for others.
- When everyone’s contributions are recognized and not just those of a few “stars,” teens can learn cooperation.
- When having more points is not considered as important as being fair and truthful, teens learn the value of honesty.
When competition is balanced with cooperation and fun, a “we can all win” philosophy emerges and fosters a great way for all members of a team or club to achieve their goal together. When competition is based on the comparison of individual performance between competitors, an “I win, you lose” attitude takes over. If win/lose competition is the only kind of competition teens are involved in, they won’t learn the fun of competing in other ways.
How to Select Appropriate Sports Activities
As a parent, the first step is finding the right sport and the right team or coach for your son or daughter. This means understanding what teens look for in organized sports. Keep in mind that the top three reasons kids give for wanting to be involved in organized sports are to have fun, be with friends, and improve their skills (Hedstrom & Gould, 2004). Ask yourself these questions when trying to identify a positive activity for your teen:
- Does the sport offer all players, regardless of ability, a chance to participate, develop skills, and reach personal goals?
- Does the sport offer my son or daughter a chance to have fun and be with friends?
- What are the attitudes of the other parents and of the coach about winning?
How to Make the Most of Sports Activities
Here are some ways your family can make the most out of opportunities to participate in sports activities.
- Discuss the role competition plays in the lives of family members. Let your child know that competition can be positive and is part of the lives of everyone in the family — it can be competing with yourself to improve in some way, competing against a friend in a pick-up basketball game, or competing against another soccer team.
- Discuss how family members can set realistic goals and be rewarded when a goal is achieved. Here’s a worksheet that can help: Goal-Setting.
- Tell your child that you believe in their abilities, competence, and efforts.
- Consider the age and personality of each child. Families may need to increase efforts to manage competition and its impact on a teen’s development.
- Encourage your child to develop a lifelong commitment to an active lifestyle. The best way to do this is to role model positive physical activity attitudes and behaviors.
- Encourage your child to play because he or she enjoys it. Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient for lifelong commitment to physical fitness.
- Encourage your child to try various physical activities.
- Focus on teaching life skills like perseverance, problem-solving, and resiliency.,
- Include your child in decision-making about sports participation. Reinforce and support your child’s decisions.
- Communicate with your child’s coach(es). Be involved in the sports program and seek out coaches that have a positive philosophy focused on skill-building.
- Do not instruct; let the coach instruct and teach.
How to Encourage Good Sportsmanship
Here are suggestions for ways to emphasize the importance of good sportsmanship in every type of competition.
- Applaud and cheer for everyone on the team, not just your child.
- Talk to parents of other team members.
- Be respectful of the officials during the game. After the game, thank the officials.
- Focus on the positive. Compliment players, coaches, and officials. Avoid insulting other team members and those of the opposing team.
- Congratulate the winning team, and congratulate the losing team on their efforts.
If we teach our kids that the only way to reach our full potential is through competition, they learn that the most important thing in life is winning. Sometimes this can lead to being dishonest to win. Those who don’t win may feel like they failed. If teens feel that they have to constantly win, they often lose interest in learning and in the activity. Competition should be an opportunity for young people to learn to compete or participate for the sake of becoming good at a skill or ability, not just to get ahead of others.
Hedstrom, R., & Gould, D. (2004). Research in youth sports: Critical issues status. East Lansing, MI: Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
Weiss M. R., & Wiese-Bjornstal D. M. (2009). Promoting positive youth development through physical activity. Washington, D.C.: President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Afterschool Alliance — The nation's leading voice for afterschool programs, the Afterschool Alliance is the only organization dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs and advocating for more afterschool investments.
The Forum for Youth Investment — The Forum for Youth Investment helps leaders get young people ready for life through products, services, and thought leadership.
Sports and Children — American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry — Learn how to be an active observer in your child’s sports activities.
Facts: Sports Activities and Children — The Aspen Institute: Project Play — This report highlights the relationships between participation in sports by children and adolescents with a range of physical, emotional, social, educational, and other benefits.