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The issue of competition within youth sports is one that divides opinion and is currently at the forefront of the political education agenda. In an effort to promote what they call “Long Term Player Development,” the Canadian Soccer Association has ruled that all Under-12 teams will no longer keep track of goals during the game or keep league standings, whilst the US Youth Soccer has recommended a policy of no scoring or standings for their Under-10 programmes.

What degree of competition leads to a healthy environment for kids? Why do parents and coaches want competition for their young ones? Is competition a necessary part of the preparation for becoming an adult?

I don’t believe that sporting rivalry is either negative or positive. It just is. Rather, it’s the way that we think about it and handle it that makes it good or bad. The extent to which competition is emphasized directly leads to the degree of impact it has upon children, and if winning at all costs is taught as the primary objective of youth sports, then competition becomes dangerous.

I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that competitive sports prepares children for “real world competition.” I have found the this “real world” has a lot less competition than many suppose it to have. Success is not a black-and-white concept. Winning is not always a zero-sum event. Not only is the “best” probably more of a subjective concept than an objective one, but there is nearly always scope for multiple people, businesses, and products to be judged as “successful” in all areas of life. On an even more personal level, I find the rivalry that leads to the most positive results is when I’m competing against myself. No one else needs to keep score for me to measure my progress.

However, with all of that being true, I believe without a doubt that competition has a justifiable and relevant role to play in youth sports, and one that will teach significant lessons in life. Here’s 14 beneficial effects that come from children experiencing competition within sport:

Stock photo of girl soccer players showing good sportsmanship at the end of a game. Purple and Pink teams congratulate each other on a game well played. Girls are in the 8 to 10 age group and of diverse backgrounds and cultures. Ten girls are in the image with four faces visable.
How many winners do you see?

1. Good Winner. Good Loser. The most revered individuals are those that win with grace and lose with dignity. Competitive sports naturally lead to opportunities of achieving success and failure, of feeling gratification and regret, and gives kids an understanding of how to control them in healthy ways.

2. Overcoming Fear.  Even the thought of a competitive environment can create fear in children’s minds, be it a cup final penalty shoot-out or an egg and spoon race. Kids naturally amplify competition into something scarier than it is (the opposition always seems a bit bigger don’t they?), however once they’re competing they soon realise there’s not much to be afraid of after all.

3. Risk Taking  Once the fear element has been removed, risk-taking begins. Confidence grows, and with that comes tackling things that were previously deemed too difficult and unachievable.

4. Building Self Efficacy. As risk taking and confidence develop, kids begin to earn their own high levels of positive self-efficacy. Competition leads to self-esteem which cannot be given to them, but is something they have to deserve. A competitive youth sports environment allows kids to experience elements of failure and realise the meaning of resilience after they’ve bounced back and not given up.

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5. Self Management. Whilst the process of setting and achieving goals is possible without a competitive element, a sporting rivalry creates the need for, and subsequent learning of, progress checks, deadline management, and performance monitoring.

6. Competition Is Fun. There may be some with fickle nerves and slight apprehension, but the vast majority of kids love to play games. The added component of competition between teams increases an individuals’ sense of belonging; of being a part of something real and worth competing for. If competition can be managed well then sport is normally a lot of fun.

7. Manage Our Nerves. Even the greatest athletes and achievers feel those butterflies that dance around in your stomach when a comfort zone is threatened. It’s a normal response that requires learning to deal with, and one that occurs through competitive sport . If a child can learn to control his nerves, they can use this ability when sitting tests, interviewing for jobs, and giving presentations. Research by British Universities and Sport (BUCS) explains how involvement in competitive sport can boost students’ employment prospects.

8. Harder, Better, Faster,  Stronger. When there is an event to prepare for, kids work more diligently and become more dedicated. Competing against others results in pushing oneself a little further. In doing so they surprise themselves as to what they are capable of accomplishing.

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9. Coping With Adversity. Sometimes children give their best effort and don’t win. Sometimes they end up victorious but fail to work as intended. These moments build a strength of character, a ‘backbone’, a trait that means they can subsist in life.

10. Academic Performance. Evidence suggests that juggling an academic education and a sporting career can benefit the performance in areas. Research published in The International Journal of the History of Sport found that having “dual careers” provides motivation for training and preparation, stimulating athletes intellectually and relieving stress.

11. Play To The Rules. Being part of a competitive sporting environment teaches an understanding of why its undesirable to break rules. Coming up with ideas of how to use those rules advantageously is also an important attribute that competition offers to children.

12. Giving The Best. Whether its competition against yourself or against a long-term sporting rival, the fact that scores are kept provides additional motivation to achieve the best. The pursuit of excellence requires competitive markers and youth sports provides these.

13. Dedication. Establishing a natural routine of dedication and commitment when encountering any task is an extremely worthwhile by-product of sporting competition. American business billionaire John DeJoria became famous for his motto: “The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is the successful people do all the things the unsuccessful people don’t want to do. When 10 doors are slammed in your face, go to door number 11 enthusiastically, with a smile on your face.”

14. Travel and Team Bonding. It may be witnessing high school politics on journeys in rugby buses to and from remote venues, or perhaps an international week-long football tournament in Amsterdam. But being part of a competitive group allows youths adventures in exploring new people and places, whilst getting to know their peers and themselves better.

It goes without saying that several of the 14 points are attainable through other means e.g. music, the arts, or even no-score sports. Yet I feel that if competitive sports can be managed appropriately by putting the needs of youths above the concept of winning, then they are an important childhood experience. Its key that rewards are not given for just turning up. Having competition reinforces the fact that a child has worked hard and earned something. What they and their team do matters in the end. Greater focus on the process and less concern over the result allows competitive sports to be a character developing and happy part of childhood, but eliminating competition completely is big step too far.

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