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Teach your child to be competitive to ready them for the arena of life

I have provided professional sports psychology in Tucson for over 20 years. 

As a child counselor and parent, I have experienced and witnessed the deep craving parents feel to see their children triumph in the competitive arena. Whether academic or athletic, there is a fire in the belly when it comes to competing. In my counseling work with gifted students, youth athletes and highly competitive families, I have discovered something far more important than the win/loss record. Something more golden than the Gold Medal. A character mettle forged much stronger than trophy metal. Something that you as a parent (or competitor) should heed if you want your child to compete in the fullest rather than in the most primitive sense in the arena of life.

What do I mean by the most primitive sense? “Too many youth athletes get over focused on getting the win”, says Dr. Scott Goldman, PhD, a colleague of mine and fellow father. He is also Director of Clinical and Sports Psychology at the University of Arizona, and counsels college athletes. He says,

“I tell our athletes all the time, if you just want to win, go play against a 4th grader. But if you want your win to have meaning, play against someone who can beat you”.

I would add this: you learn and grow much more from loses than wins. The loses build your resilience, your adaptability. Your ability to get up after being kicked in the stomach, literally or metaphorically.

Scott then made a critical point for all you parents to chew on: if the focus is on child development, the competitive event is only one component. The other component is who is helping your child understand (and stand back from) their experience of the event. He said a common experience is college athletes telling stories of how if they won the game, they got ice cream, and if they lost, they went straight home. Thus, winning becomes bound up with acceptance and losing means one is not accepted or loved.

“But winning IS IMPORTANT”, you say, adding, “Spare us the mushy ice cream stories and tell us how to make our kid the next star of the team”. Hey, I feel the heat. I have given inspirational talks to my 7-year-old William on how important it is to compete heartily. I am a serious competitor. Why? Because I feel just like my friend and fellow competitive cyclist Matt Blair, a father of two young children. He said: “Being competitive is a requirement to survive and be successful. In order to succeed, we must embrace our competitive nature, challenge ourselves, and overcome the obstacles that keep us from out dreams”. He then went into Old Wise Man mode and tapped into the core of my blog today when he said: “As a child, being competitive can help children develop the necessary life tools that are most important for a successful life”.

Matt’s focus on the bigger picture, on the importance of your child learning “life tools”, hits the bull’s eye. So why do so many coaches, parents, and children over focus on the primitive target of winning and losing the next game and lose focus on the bigger and more noble target of building tools that will serve them as they struggle the ups and downs of marriage, career challenges, loss, and maybe even trauma. In short, the tools that will serve them till death.

I have several hypotheses about what drives the narrow focus on winning. We have evolved over millions of years to want to equate winning with survival. To believe there is a winner and a loser. Who wins? The competing tribe or our tribe? Do we kill the predator or does it kill us? Dozens of psychological experiments prove that when people are put into circumstances where they must compete, raw and primitive energy is unleashed. The beast within is awakened. It’s us against them. And that is why millions tune in to sports every weekend, we crave to witness the raw grandeur of blood, sweat, and tears being shed for the glory of being the last one standing. Are we that far from the Roman Coliseum? We also relish the idea of the underdog coming out on top, taking what was not theirs and may not have even seemed within their reach. An epic example being the U.S. Olympic Hockey team upsetting the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. No one thought this was possible. One final hypothesis is that for some people winning IS the end all be all. I quote Vince Lombardi, one of the winningest NFL coaches of all time: “Winning isn’t everything…it is the only thing”. But winning at what? Beating who?

The Trap of Relative Success and Why Competing With Yourself is BestI argue that the greatest competition is within oneself, and you should be most focused on beating yourself. The enemy is within. In other words, the best athletes even after a win are asking themselves what they did wrong. Sloppy wins are no better than bad losses. The focus should not be on whether your child won, but on whether they used their set of physical and mental tools to hit their “sweet spot”, their potential that day. If their grandparent just died, your expectations need to change. If the focus is more on what unique skill sets they bring to the game, and you or coach works with them on rigorously developing these skills, then they will not over focus on beating someone else, but on expanding THEIR potential.

My friend and fellow father John Lee served up a great example of this when he reminded me about what he calls the competition and the “trap relative success”. I quote him fully:

“In the dark days of Apple computers they were focused foolishly on competing with Microsoft, in the PC market. They wasted their resources in a game that promised only relative success and delivered concrete failure. Upon his return, Steve Jobs withdrew Apple from this competition and set about to excel in a different field. The wisdom in that is, do what YOU do well. Don’t let your competitors define success. Help teach your children as early as possible to find their center. Help them strive to excel in their productive use to others. If we let Nike define competition to our children we fail.”

Helping Children find their Center John Lee’s concept of a child finding their center sounds mystical but guess what, it is exactly where sports psychology is going. There is a whole science being erected around the idea that if we help humans turn themselves inside out, they will then focus on what skills set are missing. They then develop skills sets to round off their skills and they find that center. I would liken John’s concept of a center to the widely referenced concept of “flow” researched by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. He wrote a book called Flow that has become a classic in the field of Performance Psychology. Any person interested in high performance, whether in the academic, athletic, or business arena should read this book. He talks about what it feels like for people when they are performing optimally. A truly fascinating read.

The bottom line is, as a parent, you do need to put on a lab coat and study your child’s style when they are competing. This will make you a better parent, and you will likely see a lot of your own traits in your offspring. In other words, by studying them you will learn about yourself. We are learning more and more that better performance is not about “playing harder” as much as it is about “playing smarter”. As Ian Jackson, coach to Olympic cyclists once told me, “You win with finesse, not force”. He taught me a whole different way of breathing when I cycle, called BreathPlay. Sounds gimmicky, but several Olympiajns would argue otherwise.

I am harshly reminded of the criticalness of understanding mental factors weekly where my performance varies relative to my riding group. Our children are no different. Finding a center might mean finding consistently effective ways to balance ourselves off given how we wake up that morning. And this brings us back to the idea of like tools that Matt Blair brought up. So much of performance is mental, and who has the most spacious mental toolbox to compensate for fatigue, pain, inner doubts, and laziness will not only get the win. They will live a more fulfilling life where they find their center and flow more often.

How spacious is your child’s toolbox? If you asked them what are five different ways to work through the desire to give up during an agonizing competition, could they tell you? Challenge yourself to think how can I help my child win by playing smarter, not harder. I am not saying hard work does not have its place, but it is a limited place. If you asked your child why it is important for them to focus most on developing their unique talents, not on winning, could they tell you?

Nevertheless, there is no doubt teaching your child to compete is critical to helping them desensitive to pain, thirst, and even agony. Children who are competitive athletes tend to learn to delay their gratification better.

The competitive attitude can bridge the distance between who we are now and who we can become (Matt Blair’s idea). Our children glimpse betters selves when they excel, and they learn to channel anger and aggression while mastering anxiety and doubt. They learn to perform well even under stress. But they need tools, psychological tools. If you want to find out what tools are out there, try reading some classic books on performance like The Inner Game of Tennis. A true classic, and not just for tennis players.

If you cultivate in your child a hardy resilience toward the peaks and valleys that competition brings, you will have done more for them than any trophy wall can do.

I quote two friends because I cannot say it any better. First, John Lee:

“If you define success by the failure of others you have gained nothing. And if you define your losses by the success of others you will live in eternal misery. The important games to win are the ones in which you advance others along the way”.

I agree with John, and would argue that if your child learns that overcoming their own internal derailers (or mental blocks) is the key to successful competition, then they will not only compete well in games with winners and losers, but will also see way beyond the win/loss paradigm. They will see into how they can develop themselves and others at the same time. Isn’t that what great leaders do?

You want your child to compete for external rewards in a healthy way, with perspective…where they see each “trophy” only as a means of progressively getting closer to tasting their own unique potential.

Now, let your child also know that what Matt Blair says something to take to Heart: “If you have given your best, pushed yourself as hard as possible and you still don’t win, rejoice in your effort. Rejoice”. Sometimes you want to celebrate even defeats, when they played to their potential.

The End Goal
The end goal of competition is to accelerate the development of the tools you or your child need to reliably hit the performance sweet spot on any given day. The focus must be on the development of tools that will serve anyone when they are called upon to exhibit character and/or leadership throughout their life…not on wins and losses. Though wins and losses must be part of the journey.

Vince Lombardi was right, winning is not everything, it is the only thing. But the win I am talking about is when we reach our potential by the end of our life and we can pass on stories to the younger generation about how we reached our potential by helping others reach theirs.

Tips for Parents who want their Children to Compete Wisely
-Expose your child to a wide variety of sports, both team and individual sports. Individual sports like golf, martial arts, horseback riding, archery, etc, can also help a child learn valuable mental skills. Understand your child’s unique temperament and physiology may make them naturally better at some sports versus others.

-Don’t let your child feel like your love for them is bound up in their ability to win. This will cripple them psychologically. But also be clear that you expect them to fully commit and to perform to their potential.

-Teach your child that losing is necessary to getting better, and that the toughest lossess build the ,most character.

-Teach your child that even the best competitors feel anxiety at times. Teach them that courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. Give them tools – not lectures – to help them face that anxiety

-As a parent, recognize you have a much more refined job than yelling praise or giving criticism. Rather, you job is to help them internalize the cognitive or emotional skills they need to overcome whatever emotions or thought patterns will get in their way. If this sounds too “psycho-babblish” to you, I guess you haven’t noticed that most professional athletes consult sports psychologists.

-Get to know what your child’s personality derailers are, because it is these that will make or break them in athletics and in life. Read my blog about the “10 derailers that impair even good people” by clicking here: https://www.doctorbrunner.com/10-character-flaws-that-can-derail-even-good-people/

-Follow your child’s passion without letting them jump around sports too impulsively. Children do better with a passion that helps them gain self esteem and be protected from negative peer pressure.

-Don’t try and have your child make up for your failed sports career, but also recognize real potential and spend time with them developing it. I have met so many adults whose chief complaint is they cannot remember their parent ever spending significant time with them, coaching them. If you do not have time for your child, re-evaluate your decision to have kids and whether you are making the necessary sacrifice.

-When your child gets injured, don’t helicopter in and over react. Be compassionate but not dramatic. Normalize their experience and use it as an opportunity to help them learn how to cope with injury and pain while remaining even-keeled and focused on how to help them heal.

-After games, don’t launch into your ESPN review of the game. Ask your child how they felt. Your goal is to help your child gain a 360 degree view of their strengths and skill gaps.

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Meet Doctor Brunner

Dr. Thomas (Tom) Brunner is a Tucson based psychologist and published expert who has a 20 year track record of clinical excellence, scientific research, teaching, publications, awards and podcast interviews.  He is the senior author of a psychological measure adapted into 14 languages worldwide, and has written over 250 blogs, many of them have gone viral.  He is revolutionizing the field of career guidance with his fresh and trademarked approach that is spreading like wildfire. Sign up here to be notified of soon to be published book, Find Your Real Me: Career Guidance Making You Truly Free.