Sports provide kids with many opportunities for growth and mastery. But all too often, competitive events are approached with a FIXED mindset. When kids want to quit after a loss, make excuses rather than accepting setbacks, or even cheat in order to win, they’re signaling the need for a new perspective.
In extreme cases, they may even become anxious, avoiding sports or competition altogether.
Fortunately, there’s another way of approaching athletic competition. With a healthy competitive mindset, kids relate success to working hard rather than innate talent. They see accomplishment in even small gains and seek inspiration from their competitors. Kids with this mindset achieve by consistently doing their BEST.
Healthy competition during childhood has been linked to greater empathy, confidence, and social skills later in life. Not to mention gracefully handling wins and losses! With so many benefits, it’s clear that developing THIS type of mindset early on can help kids become their very best selves.
Here are 5 effective ways to create a healthy competitive mindset and ensure they keep trying (and having fun!) regardless of the final score.
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1. Connect Winning with Effort
Kids often think of winning as the result of talent or luck. To cultivate a healthy competitive mindset, explain that positive outcomes are the result of lots of EFFORT. Discuss how the best players are the ones who practice the most and work the hardest.
"Competition helps kids learn that it is not always the best or the brightest who are successful, but rather those that work hard and stick with it.”
- Timothy Gunn, Psychologist
To help your kids grasp this concept, have them do some research about their sports role models. They will learn how much work and effort went into each athlete's success.
As supportive parents and coaches, it’s tempting to praise a young athlete’s effort alone. For example, you might be tempted to say “You trained so hard!” But a key aspect of a growth-centered competitive mindset is the outcome.
Psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the mindset associated with success is actually not the “...self-esteem movement of blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not” (The Atlantic Interview 2016).
Praising effort without results is known as a false growth mindset, and can actually be harmful. Kids know when they truly worked hard and performed well, and us saying otherwise can be confusing or even insincere.
Instead, help kids notice what went WELL in each game or practice, and note how effort created even their smallest gains. For example, you can say, “You trained very hard and now you’re able to do this move!”
Wins deserve celebration and rewards, of course, but keep them connected to the persistence of your child and his or her team!
2. Re-Define Success
Early on, explain that accomplishment does not always mean winning. Set a performance-based rather than an outcome-based goal. Catching a ball, working hard during practice, or learning from an experience can all be defined as success.
Since the outcome of a game is usually beyond our control, what we can focus on is the EFFORT we put forth.
Ask kids, “What do you hope to learn from this?” or “What is your goal for yourself?” to develop intentions beyond simply winning the game.
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, athletes with a growth mindset see “success in learning and improving, not just winning” (2008, p. 107). So broaden the definition of accomplishment.
Bouncing back after a loss can also be viewed as an achievement. Failure is not only helpful in building resilience but necessary!
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
- Michael Jordan, basketball player
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3. Learn From the Competition
It’s natural for kids to compare themselves and their performance to others. In fact, it’s part of how kids figure out who they are. But it becomes unhealthy when they don’t feel they measure up or are constantly looking over their shoulders.
Instead, kids can learn to be inspired by their competitors. Have kids ask themselves, “What are they teaching me?” or “What are they doing that I’d like to learn?” Also, note the EFFORT that led to a competitor’s success: “I bet he practiced so much to get that good. What do you think?”
“When you read about an athlete or team that wins over and over and over, remind yourself, 'More than ability, they have character.'”
- John Wooden, legendary basketball coach
Kids can also learn to compete against their own past performance. Gunn says, “Part of developing healthy competition is that children learn their most important competitor is their self.”
Rather than focusing on others, a child’s success could be a quicker time than he had last week or persevering through a challenge he couldn’t before. Self-competition can make tolerating both losing and winning a bit easier, too.
Finally, teach kids that comparisons are relative. Psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore suggests that we start by discussing physical size: Ask your child, “Are you big or little?” The answer: she is larger than a baby and smaller than a teenager but the right size for doing her favorite things.
Next, ask “Is your bedroom big or little?” It’s bigger than a closet but smaller than a house, and the ideal size for holding her clothes and toys.
Competitive abilities can be viewed in the same way: “You are just right to do your best at whatever you try. You have everything you need right at this moment.”
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4. Create a Healthy Team Culture
Coach John Lawton defines culture as “how it feels to be part of a team.” A healthy team culture is one that values the lessons learned from mistakes, with time to reflect on performances.
When coaches openly discuss challenges and create environments where mistakes are encouraged, kids have the opportunity to learn and move past them. Making regular time for reflection on both wins and losses is also key.
Ask kids, “What we can learn from our loss?” or “What did we do well?”
Good sportsmanship is a necessary component of a healthy team culture. Humbly accepting wins and graciously accepting losses are learned behaviors, ones that kids don’t automatically know.
Teach kids to shake hands with referees and the opposing team as simple ways to demonstrate being a good sport. As parents, model good behavior (don’t argue with an official or badmouth a call).
Brainstorm with kids about what kind of team they’d like to build. What are the specific ways they can contribute to their vision? Perhaps complimenting teammates or helping create a list of good sportsmanship rules?
Or maybe your child wants to organize an after-game ritual like going for ice cream or doing a silly dance. Whatever their ideas, creating a positive team feeling is essential.
5. Practice at Home
A simple way to practice a healthy competitive mindset is through family games. Prior to playing, consider games or activities that kids can potentially win, and keep it fair.
Maintaining a light and playful tone throughout games can ease tension and allow kids to manage their feelings about the outcome more easily.
One way to approach home practice is through a series of “intermediate steps” (Kennedy-Moore). Begin with single-player games and activities in which kids compete against themselves. Grab a stopwatch to time how many bubbles she can blow in a minute. Use sidewalk chalk to see how far she can jump.
Next, add the element of teamwork by choosing cooperative board games like “Race to the Treasure” or “Hoot Owl Hoot” where your family works together against a common obstacle.
Finally, encourage “Kids versus Adults” competitions to increase the stakes.
Emotions about winning or losing can still run high, even at home. Kennedy-Moore reminds us to teach kids that both are temporary states.
Brainstorm with kids about what will happen after they win or lose. Will things in life generally stay the same with either outcome? The answer is likely yes. Winning feels good and losing feels bad, but neither state is permanent.
Be sure to check out our popular Big Life Journal - 2nd Edition (ages 7-10). It helps children develop strong Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and growth mindset skills through inspiring stories, colorful illustrations, and engaging guided activities. In this beautifully illustrated journal, children learn how to believe in themselves, face challenges with confidence, and use mistakes as opportunities to grow!