The Problem with the Competitive Spirit

The Problem with the Competitive Spirit
I remember the phone call. My husband was at one end, calling me from the kindergarten soccer field. “You wouldn’t believe this game!!” he said as if he was calling from Super Bowl XLII. “Something clicked today. He just got it… Katie, he scored 5 goals!”
That was the day our son learned that playing sports wasn’t just for fun and exercise – the goal was to win. And winning felt amazing. For all of us.

Our son is now 7 and is only eligible to play in town leagues that don’t keep score. The real goal is to learn and have fun, the league managers say. But at the end of every game, the competitors know the score. “It was 7 to 5, Mom. We won,” the competitive kids gloat as they walk off the field sweaty, exhausted and smiling ear to ear. (Meanwhile the other team is saying the exact same thing, but that’s another story!)
I have to admit: for two years, I have loved my competitive kid’s spirit. While we’ve had to stifle a few pouty car rides home after a loss – and had to stop the constant sibling races to do daily tasks (brush teeth, eat breakfast, finish homework) — I’ve felt pride that he’s good at sports – and he loved them, something I never could say about myself. Sure, the constant talk of winning got on my nerves at times – but we’d discuss it. “If you had fun, you won” I’d say with a smile, both of us knowing that it was a pretty cheesy line you give kids who don’t win. My husband would end a game and tell our son to pass more, trying to give other kids a shot at scoring. And I’d send our son off to his next game with the opposite advice. “Buddy, if you have a break-away, don’t pass. Just shoot.”
Our younger child is more of a pacifist. You might say, she’s a daisy-picker – the kid on the field who is more interested in the small flowers growing in between the blades of grass. She’s a great teammate, loves her friends and the feel of the team, has the most amazingly awkward Phoebe-from-Friends-style run – and she would rather not make contact with the ball. I’ve written about their differences before (here) advocating for participation trophies, believing that she is the exact person who needs these mementoes to keep her exercising. But I was worried about her: If she’s not a competitive kid – will she ever be a motivated adult?
A perk of being an editor at is that I get to assign articles around what interests me as a parent. And I’m fascinated by kids with a competitive spirit – and those without. Who is better off? When do you put those daisy-pickers out of their misery? I thought I knew the answer.
I assigned the piece worried about my non-competitive daughter. But it turns out I should be worried about my overly-competitive son. Why? Kids who play to win end up getting easily disappointed and give up early in fear of losing. While the non-competitive kids have an internal life skill of being able to make themselves happy no matter where they are.
Read the full article >
I have to tell you, the piece changed my entire way of thinking. Previously, I’d see kids on the outfield of a baseball game, looking at clouds instead of the ball, and I’d think: “Why are his parents making him play? He clearly doesn’t want to be here.” But just because he’s not in it to win it, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t experience a team and a skill that he might grow to enjoy. Plus, if he’s happy, keep him out there!
Meanwhile, my kid who claims he wins all the time needs more activities that he can focus on alone –that don’t have a picture-perfect end result (reading is an example). I might get him to try an instrument.
As for my daisy-picker, she wants to try karate this fall, which experts say is a great intrinsic competitive sport for kids like her – who know exactly what they need to make themselves happy, and we, as parents just need to encourage this self-motivation and let them thrive.
I swear, I learn more and more from these kids. Because when it comes down to it, life isn’t about having the most/nicest/more expensive stuff — or being the best at something (competitive spirit). It’s about taking any situation and finding something about it that inspires you and makes you happy (daisy pickers).
Perhaps this is what they mean by stopping to smell the roses. And my flower girl knew it all along.
So tell me, do you think kids with a competitive spirit are better primed for getting ahead later in life?



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