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Why Kids Are So Competitive -- and How Parents Can Teach Fairness

Competition in Sports

In the past decade children's sports have become more intensely organized -- by adults. And many kids are beginning to specialize in a single sport as early as age 6. Why? Often to increase their chances of landing a college scholarship or turning pro. Yet, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, fewer than 1 in 35 male high school basketball players will play college hoops; only 1 in 200 high school baseball players will reach the major league. "Making it to the highest level requires more than just practice," says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports (Avery). "It takes a highly competitive personality, a love for the sport, and incredible natural talent."

Still, a 2008 survey by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 74 percent of parents have seen a coach yell at a child for making a mistake, promoting a do-or-die ethic. "Coaches think success is winning the championship," says Engh. "But what should matter is that kids are learning teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship."

How Kids Are Losing Out

  • Unnecessary injuries. Of the more than 30 million children and teens who participate in organized sports, about 3.5 million yearly seek medical treatment for overuse injuries and fatigue from overtraining, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And that doesn't include injuries resulting from recklessness.
  • Underhanded play. A poll of more than 5,000 high school athletes by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that nearly half of the football players they asked agreed it's okay for the coach to tell a player to fake an injury to get a time-out. Nearly half of baseball players agreed that it's acceptable for a coach to order his pitcher to throw at an opposing hitter.
  • Quitting too soon. Kids pressured to be superstars may stop having fun, lose their intrinsic motivation -- and the skill-building benefits of sports -- and even give up. "Excelling takes hard work," says Grolnick. "Kids who play for the love of the game perform better over the long haul than those who play only to beat others."

It's inevitable that your child will have to go head-to-head with others. Sometimes it'll be healthy fun; other occasions may be tough or even painful. But, in the end, knowing how to face competition honestly and with a good attitude can set kids up for a happy, fulfilling life -- the best victory of all.