Helping children feel proud of their achievements when they win but also of their efforts when they lose is key to deriving benefit from competition
Many people suggest that healthy competition is good for children. Proponents of early competitiveness believe that it will prepare children for the cut and thrust of life, which can be competitive. They claim that it teaches children to be resilient and to persevere, as well as helping them to deal with failure and disappointment. It can help children to move out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves and it can help children develop empathy.
Of course, any of these potential benefits will depend a lot on the nature of the competition and how a parent or mentor helps a child to reflect on and make sense of the outcome of the competition. Without any kind of reflection, it is equally possible that the competition might lead a child to experience crushing disappointment that they can’t deal with, and likely increase their negative appraisal of themselves. This in turn could have a lasting negative impact on their self-esteem.
For example, competition might influence the development of a fixed mindset in a child. If they have repeated failure they may decide that they are just no good at the task (for example, “I’m no good at football”) which could limit their willingness to try not just that task but other related tasks (“I’m no good at football” might generalise to “I’m no good at team sports”).
In order to combat this, a child will need a lot of support to make sense of their disappointment or frustration at losing, such that they can see that failure on one or several occasions isn’t necessarily indicative of permanent failure, but that actually the development of skills and strategies is possible and this in turn might lead to success in the future. This kind of thinking is referred to as a growth mindset.
Parents may also feel that competition has the potential to lead a child to greater performance. If they are trying to beat someone else, then they may be motivated to try harder. Interestingly, a meta-analysis of the association between competition and performance has shown that there is no link between the two. A meta-analysis is a form of research that takes all of the data from previous relevant research studies and combines it together for reanalysis. As a consequence, the results from meta-analyses, because they are based on so much information, tend to be very robust and definitive.
That meta-analysis went on to show that competition is equally likely to provoke both positive and negative feelings (like motivation and anxiety, or excitement and pressure) such that it can have positive and negative impacts on performance. This suggests that the relevant factor in performance is not the presence or absence of competition, but rather some aspect of the person’s response to their feelings about that competition.
These pieces of research bring us right back to how we help children to respond to competition. For any of the benefit it might bring some children, it may also be detrimental to others, so we have to help children learn to win and lose well. Rudyard Kipling has a poem, If and one of the lines in it is, “If you can meet Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”. This, to me, is the essence of how we support children with competition. It is great to celebrate victory, but it is also important to be able to accept defeat.
When children win it is good that they can be helped to feel proud of their achievement. But we must also help them to feel proud of their effort when they don’t win. We must avoid whitewashing their disappointment at a loss but rather acknowledge it such that they can feel the hurt of the loss and process it effectively.
If they are to learn empathy through competition, then they must be helped to consider the feelings of others, such that they don’t gloat about their performance and can be sensitive to the disappointment of others (which is why it is helpful for children to experience losing so that they know what that feeling is like).
If we want children to become resilient, then we have to help them to develop a growth mindset that encourages them to see that beyond the disappointment of losing, there is opportunity to continue to develop skills. This means that we have to teach them that participating has benefit (through skills learning and fun) irrespective of winning, and that winning is just the icing on the cake.
Competition is not inherently good or bad for children (although younger children often find losing to be very hard!). It is the response of parents and mentors and how we help them to process their feelings about the competitions they are part of that will be the key to deriving benefit or harm from those competitions.