We all want our sons or daughters to be winners and not losers. But when it comes to teens and competition, there may be something more important for your child's self-esteem than whether or not they win or lose.
New research out of California State University, in collaboration with the University of Texas at Dallas, examined two types of competition involving high school seniors: competing to win and competing to excel. The spirit of competing to excel is not necessarily to beat out your competition, but to surpass your own personal goals or improve one's skills. In the study, more boys than girls reported competing to win--a finding consistent with other research. And for boys, who are naturally more competitive to begin with, this attitude of seeking to dominate rivals, annihilate the competition, and prove their superior skill did not significantly relate to outcomes of mental health.
Yet the spirit of competition seems to affect boys and girls differently, and among teenage girls, it was a quite different story. Females who said that they competed to win reported higher rates of both depression and loneliness, as well as fewer friends and social relationships, when compared to girls who said they did not compete to outperform their competition. Meanwhile, in both boys and girls, competing to excel was correlated with higher self-esteem, more feelings of achievement and lower rates of depression.
There could be several reasons for such a finding. More competitive teens tend to be harsher both on themselves and others when they feel they don't measure up. And since these psychological inventories tend to capture traits that leak into other areas, it's hard to say which is causing which. (More competitive spirits may be more often seen in narcissistic and/or self-absorbed teens, as well as in those with a poor self-image, who may use competition as a crutch to make up for other self-esteem issues.) And of course, teens that make a habit of showing off and showing down their peers will tend to drive away friends, thus leading to more social isolation, loneliness, and depression.
Whatever the answer, there is one thing for certain: it's not necessarily whether you win or lose, but the manner in which you approach the competition. It's a message I'm sure most parents would agree with, yet it's one that often gets lost in practice. Too often the focus in competitions rests solely on winning, with awards, trophies, and recognition/praise given solely for beating the competition. Whether as parents or as educators or as coaches, we could all do more to encourage competing to excel versus competing to win. Do we recognize a child's improved performance? Do we comment about how they've improved over themselves? Do we award self-growth in sports and other interests as much as we do dominating the competition? Or is the focus merely on winning or losing?
You don't need to downplay the thrills of winning or pretend that losing can't be unpleasant. We’re not trying to advocate a delicate-flower philosophy where everyone must get a blue ribbon just for showing up. Just try to include the focus on competing to improve oneself, and make it just as much a part of the game as a win/loss column. It will help youth develop a more well-rounded and healthy spirit of competition. After all, few of us can be Tiger Woods or John Elway or Kobe Bryant. If the only goal is getting to the top, it's one that will end in failure for 99.999% of youth.
But when the focus is built as much around improving oneself as it is measuring up against others, it's a goal everyone can feel good about obtaining.
Some quick guidelines for promoting the spirit of "competing to excel":
1. Set individual goals for participants in team sports, and reappraise them at the end of the season.
2. Point out the varying degrees of ability in everyday life. Even among professional athletes who have reached the top tier, there are varying degrees of ability, yet all are an important part of making up the team.
3. When your child loses a game but scores a goal or plays well, do you celebrate their performance? After all, a game is comprised of many parts that are more than just a score card, and these can be praised even amidst a loss.
4. Model this behavior yourself. It's going to be difficult for your kids to adopt this spirit if you treat winning as everything yourself.
5. Make a habit of praising other players, teams, and play. This sends the message that it’s OK to recognize the skills of others without feeling threatened by it.
6. Start early. If you foster this spirit in little league, kids will have healthy attitudes towards sports during the teenage years and for the rest of their life.