It’s a competitive world out there, and whether your kids compete in athletics, music, or even academics, they will have to learn how to be “good sports.” Being a good sport doesn’t just mean knowing how to lose gracefully – although that’s a part of it too. It means doing your best, enjoying the competition, and appreciating the effort of everyone else in the game.
Raising a good sport starts at an early age, when you serve as a model of good competitive behavior for your kids. Show them how you have fun playing soccer whether you score a goal or not, and show them how you still have a good time even when you lose three games in a row at “Crazy 8’s.” Additionally, you can set up small “competitions” (“Let’s see who can pick up the most toys in the living room!”) and give them plenty of praise when you’re on the losing end (“You sure did a great job – next time I’m going to try to do it more like you!”).
Next, give them plenty of opportunities to experience the excitement of competition. Whether it’s your favorite NFL team playing in the Superbowl, or your neighborhood flag football game, let them enjoy having a team to root for. Then you can surprise them by appreciating – and even applauding for – great plays by the other team.
At a certain point, they’ll be old enough to get involved in competition themselves, and that’s when the real parenting challenge begins. That’s because you can have control over your own behavior – and to some extent your child’s – but you can’t control what the other kids or their parents might say or do. Plus, even though losing is part of the game, it can be disappointing and painful. Here are some tips to help your child through:
Keep the emphasis on fun: Whether your child is bounding off the field with joy, or dragging her feet in dejection, your first question should be, “Did you have fun playing out there?”
Focus on the effort: Praise him for the effort he made, as in, “I saw you really running fast to catch that ball.” If he is upset about having made a mistake, talk about it in terms of what he can work on for next time: “Maybe we should practice fielding some more pop flies – I’ll bet the more we do it, the better it will be next time.”
Keep the lines of communication open: Make sure you are on good terms with the coaches (please – no threatening) and make sure your child feels like she can talk to the coach too, so that she understands what is expected and what she needs to work on.
Insist on zero tolerance for taunting: This should be a league rule, or a team rule, but at the very least you should insist that your child does not engage in un-sportsmanlike taunting. If the other team is taunting, teach your player to ignore it or respond with a simple, “We don’t talk like that on our team.”
Eliminate private incentives: Just about every coach will beg you to refrain from dangling incentives, like money, for a scored goal or a win. It shifts the emphasis away from the joy of the game, and it discourages a team effort (i.e. your child is charging toward the goal and ignoring his teammates because he wants that $10 bill).
Check your ego: Tell yourself this over and over again if you need to: It’s not about you, it’s about your kid. It doesn’t matter if you were an All-American and your kid is struggling to make the junior varsity team. This is your kid’s experience to live, and he is an individual with his own set of talents and experiences.
Of course there may be some bad days along the way, but as long as your child can handle those disappointments and remain eager to return to the game, you will have a good competitor on your hands. And remember that the lessons he or she learns along the way will be invaluable for navigating just about any situation – in school, at home, at work, and throughout life as an adult.