Many parents preach about the many benefits of sports for young children. Emotionally, they have been thought to build confidence, leadership and foster cooperation. Physically, they are heralded as promoting coordination, motor skills and muscle/heart health. Parents often believe that “in today’s competitive environment” sports help prepare us for this “dog eat dog” world.

Often, the reality is that people are more likely to be competing with themselves rather than others.  Competition in young children can actually encourage them to become selfish, narcissistic and inwardly-focussed rather than have compassion or empathy for others.  Many parents think that the benefits to self-esteem are reason enough for their kids to attempt to excel in a sport that suits their physical abilities the best. But in fact, child development experts confirm that it is not self-esteem we should be teaching our children, but rather self-compassion.

Concept of Competition is Lost On Them

The concept of competition has been seen by researchers as something young children age even up to 6 or 7 can not grasp.  It is simply not age appropriate. Having winners and losers can be extremely damaging to the delicate developing self-image of children. I hear from many parents about the value of learning to win or lose is required in “real-life”.  But when you really look at any activity that is seen to be competitive, such as applying for a job, or trying to get into a school, it’s not actually about competing “against others”.  These life stages are typically internal struggles, where a confidence and a strong self-worth as well as self-compassion is most important.

Competing for a specific “prize” or goal has also been proven to actually reduce the quality of performance in athletes vs improve it.  There is a “goal blindness” that distracts you from focussing on the activity, and rather focusses you on the end prize/medal/recognition etc..  Children should not be pressured into competing to achieve a prize, but should want to do things for their own self gratification, versus pleasing others.  This is another example of where excessive praise is counter-productive.  Are children performing for themselves, or their parents or even worse, their peers?

Children Under 12 Don’t Want To Compete

Many alternative school systems actually go out of their way to discourage competitive sports until the age of 10 years or older.  Other child development specialists such as  Dave Richardson,  a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University, specializing in child and sport development suggests the age of 12 is the earliest when children should be exposed to competitive sports.  Waldorf education warns against sports due to their characteristics of promoting “fixed movements” in children, versus more natural flowing and playful motions.  Sports are seen by Rudolf Steiner as uncreative expressions of bodily movement vs their preferred practise of “eurythmy“, a more etherial performance art.

Other outcomes of competitive sports can include “burn-out” as well as “repetitive stress injuries” that can permanently damage young, growing bodies. Interestingly enough, many of the most successful Olympians are typically much older than you’d think, and have often even started their particular sport as late as into their 20s. Some of the 10 most dangerous sports for kids starting from the most dangerous are basketball (ACL knee injuries), biking, football, soccer and baseball.  Interesting that 4 out of the top 5 are competitive team sports. In the US, an estimated 3 million athletes under age 14 are injured annually while playing an organized sport or recreational activity, according to Children’s Hospital Boston. The most common causes of sports-related injuries include falling, blunt force trauma, collisions or overexertion.

Cooperate Vs Compete

Competing to win games must be secondary to the goal of teaching the skills of the game, especially in children under 12 years. Children must be empowered to “self select”, meaning that they must choose if they want to participate in a sport, and if so, how much if any competition they want to be involved in. As an alternative, there are many cooperative games which allow exercise, team-work and still allow children to exercise in a safe and more compassionate way.  An outdoor building project or garden requires lots of lifting and physical excersion.  Riding bikes, playing tag and hide and seek are classic games for young children, and don’t require a single winner or loser. Even just going for a hike in a group provides opportunities for “guides” to lead and find natural items along the way without making the activity a race or competitive activity.  We have to leave behind our parents ideals of always striving to be a “winner” and think more holistically about empathizing with others and being compassionate towards ourselves.