The cost of winning

There are so many advantages to playing a sport. Yet, the pressure to perform, and win, can override these benefits and take away the fun. By KATE BARBER

We think a lot about what sporting pursuit will best suit our child, but perhaps we need to think more broadly about what we want our kids to gain from participation in sport.

Physical fitness, strength and skill development, of course, but also communication skills, a sense of progress, confidence, resilience, commitment, leadership, that feeling of belonging… As Nathan says, “We want to capitalise on all the benefits that sport has to offer.”

However, Nathan says, the competitive element can mean that children become more focused on winning, and satisfying their parents or coach, than on learning new skills and having fun. Preoccupied with their performance, they can become consumed with anxiety on game day.

Anxiety becomes a big problem when kids are afraid of taking risks and failing; when they’re motivated principally by their determination to please others; when their self-worth is tied up with them winning or performing well.

“You never want kids to develop this thing in their mind that love is conditional on them doing well or winning,” says Nathan.

When the focus is squarely on performance and winning, kids lose out in the long run, says Alex Chiet from Sport NZ. They don’t access all the other benefits of playing sport because their enjoyment and investment diminishes. Many kids leave sport altogether. The same applies to those determined to reach their potential on a world stage, says Alex: focusing on winning and specialising too early can be detrimental.

Sport NZ’s ‘Balance is Better’ initiative is all about ensuring all young people get quality experiences in sport, for the sake of their wellbeing: so that they reap all the benefits; reach their potential in sport if they aspire to; and still be engaged in sport 20 years on.

For any supportive parent, it’s natural to get excited when your child scores a goal, and to feel disappointed when they miss. But we need to check that our enthusiasm and investment in our child’s performance isn’t affecting their enjoyment and raising their stress levels.

We are more likely to fuel their passion without adding pressure if we talk about the ‘process’ of learning a particular skill, while avoiding comments on how well they played or on results, says Nathan. Sometimes any conversation about the game might be triggering, and in these instances, it may be best to talk about something else entirely.

Of course, as Nathan says, it’s ok to share your passions with your child, and encourage them down a pathway if you recognise a passion or strength in them. “Don’t waste an opportunity to get them involved in a sport that might build on their strengths and give them joy,” he says.

But monitor your own thinking, and your child’s interest in the sport. If you’re focusing on their progress through the grades or on them winning a particular title, then your child will be absorbing these messages and may be internalising this pressure. Ultimately your child will be more likely to reach their potential in a sport if they are intrinsically motivated and love playing.

There is this prevailing idea that ‘quitting’ is bad. But, Nathan says, “If it’s no longer fun, if it’s making them anxious and stressed, if it’s negatively impacting on relationships, then find something else.” 

There is a sport for everyone.*

*Of all the sports he tried growing up, it was theatre sports that “best set me up for adulthood”, Nathan says.