This past spring, my five-year-old played on a good soccer team. The kind of soccer team where they always had 12 goals, and the other team may have had one. Each time one of them scored, they would jump up and down, screaming with delight and at the end of each game, they would happily (and loudly) tell each other how many goals they got, and how many the other team DIDN’T get. Meanwhile, at home, when we break out the Chutes and Ladders, if my son doesn’t win, the end result is usually crying. Or if he does win, he jumps up and down and does a little dance. Not the nicest behavior, but totally normal for youngsters. How do we teach healthy competition, whether it’s on the sports field or off? And, what do we, as parents do, when we notice other parents being sore sports? Breezy Mama turned to Dr. John Mayer, a Clinical Psychologist and President of the International Sports Professionals Association for some answers.
How would you explain to a 5 year old (which is when kids usually enter sports) that it’s not about the game, it’s about having fun?
The best way to do this is by omission. Your words and actions all speak to fun, great time, enjoyment, thrills, excitement, etc. You don’t speak about winning, who won, how did you do, were you better than the other team, other players. What’s your record, how many wins do you have, etc. You behave this way in front of your children and the other children and adults. These concepts simply get out of your vocabulary and your actions.
This past soccer season, my son was in the Under 5 division, and they really had a stacked team. As a result, they would get many goals, and each time they did, they would jump up and down, celebrating very loudly. We want to support how good they are, but we also want to let them know that we’re having fun and to be a good sport to the other team. How do we, as parents, do that?
A goal or a score in an athletic contest is a “treat” a “reward” for doing something good. It is proper to celebrate this event. Why not try something radical from now on. When your team makes a goal and they celebrate include the other team in this celebration. High five with the other team and the coaches. After all the goal is an exciting event during the whole game and for everyone. I would also advise the other team’s coach before the game that your team will be doing this. The other players and all adults involved will eagerly get in the spirit of this.
We’ve all read that it’s better for the child if you don’t let them win, but how do you comfort them in a loss… when it’s you that beat them?
I have always agreed with the concept of never “letting” the child win at a game or skill that you are better than they. I advocate this because when you allow the child to win this presents a false sense of reality. The reality is that you are bigger, smarter, and have more life skills than they. We develop spoiled kids when we raise them under such pretenses. Now, your question is a bit if a trick question, because if we are raising our kids in an environment that takes the winning and losing away from the game, then they will concentrate on the fun and not take their parent as winning because they scored more points or accomplished some feat. So, gotcha, I didn’t fall for the trick question.
An important thing to do is to profusely give them affirmations for the small things they do during the game that are good skills and if they beat you on one turn, etc. Celebrate the small stuff.
Now, I must make a very important note here in answering this question. That is, parents shouldn’t be afraid of experiencing their children lose at something. The experience of losing has great developmental growth effects. By losing in little ways, through games and activities, this helps our kids handle other bigger life losses. It’s a practice effect. My favorite all time example of this are the classic nursery rhymes and games. For example, did you know that the silly little game of ‘Ring-around-the-Rosey’ was a way in which children coped with all the death around them during the Great Plague? BY practicing and facing the deaths they witnessed in a comfortable way, this helped the children accept the reality of the times. Interesting?
Finally, what great parents do in this whole games issue is to participate in games that the child chooses where the child will clearly have better skills and the parent will lose and maybe lose badly, even make themselves look silly in their incompetence. My personal favorites as a dad were roller blades (I couldn’t even stand up on them) and video games. (I would just wildly press buttons, not getting the techniques of he game.) These situations then become times when our kids can develop their own sense of mastery and this makes up for them losing at other games. Also, when you are not skilled at something your child is, allow the child to teach you how to be better. This is GREAT character development.
How do you comfort them in a loss in general, especially if they say they want to quit soccer or whatever sport because their team lost?
Like my response to the last question, point out to them how good they are at other skills and bring yourself, your story, into the conversation. “Look how dad is terrible at roller blades, but I am so good at basketball. We can’t be good at every thing in life. No one is.”
Also, point out the true nature of a loss. That the team didn’t play better than the other team. Then use the experience to point out what they have to do to get better. It’s good problem solving skills to be learned. Say nothing after a loss and the child learns nothing. But if you have an attitude of, “Let’s talk about what we learned from this game and how we can get better.”
What should a parent do if their child shows no athletic ability with sports. For example, they are signed up but always sitting on the side lines and bummed they never get to play. But, frankly, you understand why the coach wouldn’t jeopardize the game!
I always tell parents about this issue that life is a full buffet table and there are lots of choices to pick from that will fill your child with great activities to grow and mature from. Not all kids are going to embrace sports, great! Point them in the direction of the arts, writing, reading, music, etc.
If another player is repeatedly bumping them or hitting them or taunting them and they FINALLY retaliate, you don’t want to promote violence, but at the same time you can understand why they finally “gave it back.” How do you handle this situation?
As we have saying throughout this interview, all of these experiences are a learning opportunity. Your child’s retaliation may be the first signal that this bullying has been going on. Point out that you don’t accept your child to retaliate in the way they did, but teach them better ways to handle this situation. My first lesson to them would be to let the adults in charge know what is going on so that they can teach the perpetrator other ways to play the game.
If someone on the other team is a bad sport, do you sit quietly on the side or get involved?
Like the answer to the very last question, it is our moral duty to point out to the other adults involved and certainly to that child’s parents that this is unacceptable behavior. That’s what we are all there watching the games for, to make sure our kids are playing safely and appropriately.
What if a parent from the other team is overly obnoxious? How should parents handle that?
First confront the other team’s coach or whoever is in charge. If they do nothing, then go to the league management, and finally, if still nothing is done I would confront the parent face-to-face. Treat it in the same way you would in a work setting. You should first go through the proper channels.
Sports aside, many kids are competitive with one another. Just the other day, my son was boogie boarding with a friend, and when the friend didn’t catch the wave, my son teased him. I told him that we say, “nice try” instead. Any other words of advice for this scenario?
Yes, that’s a good first step, but if your child continues to display such behavior, give them a consequence like making them sit out for a while because they are not participating appropriately. To be a ‘boarder’ means you respect others and if you can’t you’re not boarding right. This will stop that in a heartbeat.
My son gets easily frustrated if he’s playing with a friend, and the friend is always winning–this could be anything from a board game to playing basketball. He’ll get frustrated and say, “I quit!” How do we correct this behavior?
Teach them to change games periodically, as I mentioned above. Also, “problem solve” with your son as what he is doing wrong in that game and how he can get better. This is good developmental learning.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes, Overall, parents shouldn’t be afraid to give consequences when children are not playing ethically with other kids. The best logical consequences is that they have to take a break from the game until they can handle it and play appropriately. We don’t do this enough in kids’ activities.
Finally, please parents, don’t be passive in these activities in our kids lives. Don’t be a parent that just drops your children off at a practice or a game. Stay and observe, there are so many things we can learn about our children from watching their interaction at these events. Then use what you saw as teaching moments.
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About Dr. John Mayer: Dr. John Mayer is a practicing Clinical Psychologist who specializes in helping families attain healthy and happy lifestyles. He is a nationally and internationally known clinician, author, lecturer who frequently appears in the media addressing topics of critical concern in society. He is particularly noted for his successful work with that dreaded, difficult age group—teens.
Mayer’s Memo, his newsletter sent to schools and institutions across the US is in its 23rd year and is acclaimed for its hard-hitting guidance on the timely concerns about youth. Audiences, whether an individual youth, a family, or an auditorium of people are compelled by Dr. Mayer’s to-the-point, doable solutions to life’s most challenging obstacles.
Dr. Mayer is also president of the International Sports Professionals Association-ISPA. See: www.theISPA.org.
Dr. Mayer is the author of over 14 books, most of them concerning family issues. His extremely helpful booklets, The Parent’s Mini-Manual series, can be seen and are available at a web site run by mom’s: www.nogginpower2.com.
Dr. Mayer’s personal web site is: www.DrJohnMayer.com.