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How to help children build competitiveness, the right way

Over the last couple of years, the conversation around whether children’s sport should be competitive has been a hot topic. On the one hand, some children are competitive by nature, and helping them build competitiveness in a positive way is so important. But on the other hand, some say competition can discourage participation and place unnecessary pressure on young people.

In 2014, the AFL announced plans to remove representative football, competition ladders and scoreboards for all age groups up to Under 10s. Then in 2018, a shakeup to Queensland’s junior rugby league competitions was announced with changes including a 12-month trial of removing competition points and premierships for all programs up to Under 12s (with Under 13s being the first age group to play a grand final).

Encouraging children to build competitiveness in a positive way isn’t a bad thing. In fact, a competitive spirit can teach children important life skills, build character and help them understand the value of hard work and the joy of achieving a goal.

Eliminating competition from children’s sport may also prove to be counterproductive, as children will still be subjected to the highs and lows of winning and losing, of being the underdog and of being competitive when they watch their sporting idols on TV, when they hear the sports segment on the news and when they watch their older brothers and sisters run onto the field.

But when it comes to competitiveness, we need to recognise it is a fine line.

As parents and coaches, it is our responsibility to ensure kids know how to be competitive in the right way and without taking it too far.

Why it is important to build competitiveness

Competition, or competitiveness, has become a dirty word, however, it is not a challenge reserved only for the sporting field. Competition is a part of everyday life – from school and further education to the workplace and career progression.

There is no escaping the fact that competition is an integral part of life, and when children have the opportunity to be competitive and nurture their competitive spirit, they learn invaluable life skills and coping mechanisms. These skills include leadership, resilience sportsmanship and teamwork, as well as the ability to handle winning and losing, overcome setbacks and set realistic goals.

Competitive sports also teach children the value of hard work and determination, and the importance of working towards a goal, even if you don’t reach it immediately. Competition can bring out the best in young players, and it motivates them to do better and play to their potential.

Some kids are naturally competitive, so it is important that parents and coaches nurture and mould their competitiveness in a positive way to ensure there is a healthy balance between competition and having fun.

Being competitive helps athletes take their skills to the next level

If your child wants to pursue their sport professionally and take their talent to the next level, a competitive spirit can be critical.

Former AFL player and PlayBook Coach Daniel Merrett shared some advice in a recent interview with PlayBook about the importance of being competitive to make it as a professional sportsperson, even if it is not your natural personality or approach.

He said, “To make it professionally you have to be competitive. You may have all the talent, but being competitive is a big factor. I had to make a conscious choice and say this is the way I need to play. I believe you can foster competitiveness within people.”

Likewise, Aussie cricketer Trent Copeland said being competitive was how he made it as a professional player.

In an article for Players Voice, Copeland said he was never the typical, freakishly talented athlete and he wasn’t pushed through the pathway systems to the top, so he had to rely on being as competitive as he could be and work hard to constantly prove himself. If it wasn’t for his competitive spirit and determination to prove himself, the consistent “not what we’re looking for” comments would have been all-consuming.

Being competitive is about striving for new skills, building talent and being motivated to do better than yesterday, or last week. It isn’t about playing for Australia. It’s about having a better game than the last game or making that shot that you couldn’t make last season. Achieving those new milestones come from putting in time, effort and attention to an aspect of the game that are important to the player. Advancement comes from being competitive and competing against your last performance. Having people around you that are striving for that too only fosters more talent, it is inspiring to see others work hard and achieve new goals. That’s how we see competition, everyone on a journey to play to their potential surrounded by people to support that journey of personal competitiveness and growth.

Tips for parents

So how can you encourage your children to be competitive without taking it too far? Here are some helpful tips.

1. Don’t be “THAT” parent

We’ve all seen one – they pace up and down the sidelines, take on the referee and shout from the bunker. Don’t be that parent.

Your kids will model your behaviour, so if you are showing qualities of bad sportsmanship, so will they. When you take it too far on the sidelines, your child may think it is okay to replicate your behaviour on the field a bad attitude when it comes to competition.

They also respond to your behaviour, look at what you do or say that makes them motivated, and what makes them retract. They look sad when you shout at them from the sidelines? Then that might not be the best approach. They fall silent when you provide a detailed blow-by-blow of what they did wrong on the field on the way home from Saturday sport? You may not be winning them over with that conversation, they’ve already switched off. Take notice of what you do that gets them up and playing, and enjoying sport, not the opposite.

At the end of the day, kids sport is… kids sport. It’s not the World Cup or a gold medal match. It’s there to be enjoyed and celebrated.

2. It’s about mindset and talent

Teaching children how to be competitive is about balancing effort and talent with the right mindset. If you need help developing this trait in your child, find a private sports coach on PlayBook who can work with your child in a one-on-one environment. Professional private coaches teach more than just technical skills – they help with mindset and the mental game too. Sometimes advice from someone other than their parent can have a big impact. More than that though, a private coach is there to foster their individual talents and help show them what will help them achieve their personalised goals.

3. Every child is different

While some kids thrive on being competitive, others don’t, so be open to adapting your approach. If your child is not responding to language around being competitive, find other ways to keep them motivated and improving. Encouraging your child to build competitiveness shouldn’t come at the cost of their confidence or participation. We believe building a lifelong love of play is essential to everyone and sometimes finding that right sport or activity takes time. Take notice of what they naturally gravitate towards.

4. You can build competitiveness, even if it doesn’t come naturally

If your child is shy or easy-going, you can still help them build competitiveness even if it doesn’t come naturally. But don’t push them too hard or too quickly as this can drive them away from sport completely. Instead, encourage them to set goals or intentions for their training sessions and games. Ask them about their contribution and performance on game days, help them see the connection between their effort and performance. Ask them what they learned at training to help them remember key insights for progression. Playing to your potential doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a gradual process.

5. It’s all about how you frame it

Being competitive is not about being aggressive or overpowering. How you talk about being competitive is important – it’s about being assertive and ready to take on a challenge. Former NRL player David Shillington talks about how his coach Brad Fittler taught him that it’s okay to be competitive and that it can have a positive impact on his gameday performance.

Shillington said Fittler taught him that being competitive meant demanding the ball from the dummy-half and getting ruck momentum for the team. He taught him that competitiveness is about strategy and how you approach the game and it’s about being active on the field instead of passive. It’s all about how you frame it.

Competitive sports are a good life lesson that things don’t always go to plan and while the losses are devastating, they are also character-building and help shape and define young people. Encourage your child to play to their potential through a competitive spirit and the mindset at any age.