Is Competing Bad for Kids?

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

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2 Responses to “Is Competing Bad for Kids?”

  1. libby harris Says:

    This is so beautiful a lesson to learn and as a career teacher I always loved improving. Kudos to you for being so open and letting your students teach you. A true win-win.

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