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Winning isn’t everything

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Organized sports give an excellent opportunity to learn important skills and values. Yet, many parents worry about how their children handle winning and losing. A healthy balance of competition, cooperation, and having fun is important in sports. This is true whether a child is competing with himself or others. Parents and caring adults need to work at creating an environment in which their teens can compete in a healthy manner.

Why participate in sports?

Parents and coaches are critical to how teens learn, or don't learn, important skills and values by participating in sports. Researchers note several ways that adult role models in sports can influence a teen’s attitudes, values, and behaviors:

  • When parents and coaches emphasize the right things, teens can begin to develop positive values about winning and losing. The "right things" include playing your best, never giving up, learning new skills, and having fun.

  • When teens see adult role models encourage teamwork and fair play, teens can learn respect for others. Teamwork and fair play involve doing your best and supporting teammates. These qualities also involve accepting each player's abilities and limitations.

  • When everyone’s contributions are recognized and not just those of a few “stars,” teens can learn cooperation.

  • When scoring more points is not considered as important as being fair and truthful, teens learn the value of honesty.

When competition is balanced with cooperation and fun, a “we can all win” philosophy emerges. This enables all players to achieve team or club goals together. But when individual performance becomes the most important thing, an “I win, you lose” attitude takes over. If this is the only kind of competition teens are involved in, they won’t learn the fun of competing in other ways.

How to select appropriate sports activities

If your teen expresses an interest in sports, your first step as a parent is finding the right sport and the right team or coach for him or her. This requires understanding what teens look for in organized sports.

According to a 2004 study on critical issues in youth sports, kids give three main reasons for wanting to be involved in organized sports. They are to have fun, be with friends, and improve their skills. Ask yourself these questions when trying to identify a positive activity for your teen:

  • Does the sport offer all players, regardless of ability, a chance to take part, develop skills, and reach personal goals?

  • Does the sport offer my son or daughter a chance to have fun and be with friends?

  • What are the attitudes of the other parents and of the coach about winning?

And remember to include your teen in making decisions about choices of sports activities.

How to make the most of sports activities

Here are some ways for you, as a parent, to help your teen make the most out of opportunities to participate in sports activities. Keeping feelings of competitiveness at a healthy level is key.

  • Start by discussing the role of competition in life generally and in sports particularly. Let your child know that feeling competitive is natural and can be positive. For example, it's good to compete with yourself to improve in some way. Or to compete with a friend in a pick-up basketball game. Or with another school's soccer team. The key is to keep feelings of competitiveness at a healthy level.

  • Getting everyone to work for the same goal helps keep competition healthy. Discuss how family members can set realistic goals and be rewarded when a goal is achieved. Here’s a worksheet that can help: Goal-Setting.

  • Tell your teen that you believe in his or her abilities, competence, and efforts.

  • Consider the age and personality of each child. You may need to increase efforts to manage competition and its impact on your teen’s development.

  • Encourage your child to develop a lifelong commitment to a physically active lifestyle. The best way to do this is to be a good role model and stay physically active yourself.

  • Emphasize the importance of enjoyment in participating in sports or any physical activity. Choosing activities you like is key to maintaining a lifelong commitment to physical fitness.

  • Encourage your child to try a variety of physical activities to discover likes and dislikes.

  • Use participation in sports to teach your teen life skills. Those include perseverance, problem-solving, and resiliency.

  • Include your child in decision making about sports participation. Reinforce and support your child’s decisions.

  • Communicate with your child’s coach(es). Be involved in the sports program and seek out coaches that have a positive philosophy focused on skill building and a sense of fair play.

  • Do not attempt to instruct your teen how to play a sport or a particular game. Don't "coach" from the sidelines. Let the coach instruct and teach.

How to encourage good sportsmanship

Here are ways to emphasize the importance of good sportsmanship in every type of athletic competition.

  • Applaud and cheer for everyone on the team, not just your child.

  • Talk to parents of other team members.

  • Be respectful of the officials during the game. After the game, thank them.

  • Focus on the positive. Compliment players, coaches, and officials. Don't insult other players on your child's team or members of the opposing team.

  • Congratulate the winning team, and commend the losing team for their efforts.Final thoughts

Final thoughts

If we teach our kids that the only way to reach their full potential is by winning a game or a match, they learn that losing means they're failures. This damages self esteem and could lead to cheating. What's more, if teens feel they must constantly win, they will likely lose interest in the activity.

Participating in sports gives teens an opportunity to learn important life skills. Those include understanding the nature of healthy competition. Make sure your teen learns the right lessons from playing sports. And has fun, too!

Related resources

Afterschool Alliance — The nation's leading voice for afterschool programs, the Afterschool Alliance is the only organization dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of afterschool programs and advocating for more afterschool investments.

The Forum for Youth Investment  — The Forum for Youth Investment helps leaders get young people ready for life through products, services, and thought leadership.

Sports and ChildrenAmerican Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry — Learn how to be an active observer in your child’s sports activities.

Facts: Sports Activities and ChildrenThe Aspen Institute: Project Play — This report highlights the relationships between participation in sports by children and adolescents with a range of physical, emotional, social, educational, and other benefits.

Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Department of Family Social Science

Revised 2017 by author.

Reviewed in 2017

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