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Sports Stress

How to help your child develop a healthy sense of competition

Courtney was the best basketball player on her eighth-grade team. Her parents attended every game, her name was headlined in the local paper along with her top scores, and the high school coach was already planning her upcoming season. The words "college scholarship" were bandied about the house, and her medals were hung in the hall. Everyone thought she was destined to be a star.

It wasn't until the day Courtney overdosed on pills that her parents realized the pressure was too much. Terrified that she couldn't live up to the expectations of her coach, her family, and her community, Courtney attempted to kill herself. What should have been an enjoyable diversion had turned into a nightmare for the whole family.

Extreme? Maybe. Yet in an era where winning is encouraged at all costs, where the evening news carries stories of a mother who put out a contract on her daughter's cheerleading rival and a father who killed another father over rough play at a youth hockey game, competitive sports have gotten a black eye. Pressure put on kids to perform may result in depression, falling grades, and behavior difficulties.

For the most part, organized sports are beneficial to our kids. As parents, we want our children to learn teamwork, to handle disappointment and loss constructively, and to respect authority. At their best, organized sports can be a great character-building tool. The trick is to help our children find the middle ground between doing their best and becoming overly competitive. Our goal should be to instill in our children a sense of what healthy competition looks like.

What Is Healthy Competition?

We all want our kids to be part of a winning team, to feel the glow of being the best. We may even harbor a few secret fantasies of free-ride scholarships and the fulfillment of our own childhood dreams. But merge these desires with our Christian values of meekness, selflessness, and loving our enemies and it becomes hard to find the balance between telling our young athletes to play to win and making sure they don't go overboard.

To understand what a healthy approach to competitive sports looks like, I talked to several parents, coaches, and authors. They identified six key areas in which parents can help children develop an appropriate perspective on competition:

1. Setting personal goals.

Rather than looking at a win-loss record, ask your child what goals she wants to set for a competition she's involved in. Does she want to improve her jump shot? Did she join the team to make new friends and have fun? You might be surprised at her response.

"Goals don't have to be about performance," says Therese Kauchak, author of Good Sports: Winning, Losing, and Everything in Between (American Girl Library/Pleasant Company). "Help your child discover what it is she wants to achieve, then work with her to break the bigger goal down into do-able steps. Remember to give her positive feedback as she attempts to reach her goals."

2. Developing a work ethic.

Sports and other competitions are a great chance for your child to learn the rewards of hard work. In our "instant-gratification" society, children need to learn that improvement only comes with practice and patience. Once kids grasp that concept, they can apply it to homework, piano lessons, even job skills.

Parents can help instill a strong work ethic by emphasizing effort over results, an approach that should start early in a child's athletic career. "No child is too young to learn self-improvement," says Dan Watzke, who has coached his own three kids for seven years. He recommends parents and coaches note specific areas of improvement before mentioning skills that need work. "Tell your child, 'Hey! You did a great job staying with the ball! Now, let's work on getting the mitt down.' Try to help him improve step by step. Don't be pushy with your child, or demanding with the coach. Show your child that you care about him as a person, not just his performance."

3. Respecting authority.

Teaching your child to respect the coach and the officials, even when they don't agree with a call or are frustrated with their playing time, will reap rewards in the character qualities of self-discipline and patience. Long after the games are over, these habits will stick with your kids. Remember to model this behavior yourself. If you're complaining about the coach or yelling at the official, don't expect your kids to act differently.

4. Winning and losing.

Good losers congratulate the winners with a "nice game" or "great job." Then, they deal constructively with their sadness over the loss. Ron Sheldon, who has coached for more than 20 years, says it's important to help children see that the pain of the loss is temporary. "Remind them that tomorrow is a new day. This is not the end of the world. The game is not the most important thing in their lives." Again, your example is going to have a tremendous impact on how your child responds to a loss. If you sulk or replay the team's mistakes over and over, your child will probably do the same.

Although anger is a normal emotion, let your child know that acting it out in a destructive way during a competition is never appropriate. Work with her coach to determine what action will be taken the next time your child's anger gets in the way of good sportsmanship. It might mean giving your child a time out, or benching her at the next game. "Some kids are born very competitive, and want to win at all costs," says Evie Brooks, who has coached girls volleyball for 21 years. "It's important to address this problem, even if it means pulling your child out of a sport. We need to help our kids grow. A player needs to learn to say, 'I blew it,' then pick herself up and go on. Her self-esteem shouldn't be shattered over losing a game or a point."

How a child handles winning is equally important. When your child wins, tell them to forget the example of hot-dogging pro football players and their end-zone dances. Being a good winner means complimenting the team or person who lost. Any rivalries or feelings of superiority should be left on the field.

5. Learning personal accountability.

Whether it's T-ball in kindergarten or soccer in junior high, your child's ability to take responsibility for her actions can be the payoff of healthy competition. This means your child doesn't blame a teammate, the guy running the time clock, or the position of the sun when she goofs up. Personal accountability also means your child is on time for practices, keeps track of her uniform, and makes sure mom and dad are appraised of game schedules.

Kids, particularly those who are gifted athletes, often feel they should perform at a professional level every time they play. When they don't, they get frustrated and look for ways to displace the blame. To help your child take responsibility for her mistakes during a game, gently remind her that no one expects her to be perfect and that every game is a chance for her to learn and improve.

6. Becoming a team player.

Soccer coach Craig Hoffman remembers leading a young boys' soccer team to an undefeated season?and how miserable that season was. "The older kids on the team ragged on the younger kids and made them miserable," Hoffman remembers. "It was one of the worst experiences I had in 24 years of coaching."

You can help foster the good feelings that come from being part of a team by talking about the other kids in a positive way. After a game, praise your child's effort, then mention the hard work you saw in his teammates. Help him see the good in his fellow players and encourage him to pass praise along to them when he can.

When Coaches Are the Problem

Maybe you've worked hard to teach your child the good components of healthy competition, only to have him end up on a team with a coach who's out to win only.

Communication is your first plan of action. Take your concerns about a situation to the coach at an appropriate time?not during the game or during a particularly tense moment. Be sensitive and nonconfrontational. State your concerns clearly, but not emotionally. For example, "I'm so angry that you never put Brad in. What's wrong with you?" will guarantee a rise out of the coach; whereas "We'd like to work with you to help Megan learn new basketball skills" is more likely to elicit cooperation.

If communication isn't working, but your child is determined to play on that team, you can choose to treat the situation as a learning experience. It's a strong lesson in how unhealthy competition can take away from the fun of the game. Just be sure and talk with your child about the experience and make sure your child is following your example of sportsmanship, not the coach's.

As a last resort, you may have to remove your child from the team. "If the coach is highly inappropriate, or your child is acting miserable and withdrawn, it's time to take some action," Ron Sheldon says. "Also, if there is any kind of abuse or safety issue involved, you must step in."

The Faith Perspective

Developing an appropriate sense of competition in children is hard enough for any parent. But for Christian parents, it can be especially tricky. Marshall Shelley, general editor of the Quest Study Bible (Zondervan) and a coach for 16 years, points out that sports in general have a long association with issues of faith. "Paul uses all kinds of athletic imagery in his letters, such as 2 Timothy 4:7," says Shelley. "That imagery is always positive and gives a kind of implicit endorsement of athletic endeavors." Shelley adds that sports are one of the best ways to teach children that failure is never final. "When you lose in a public setting, you learn that the answer to failure is not to quit and go home, but to come back tomorrow and try again. Losing is part of life, and as Christians, we believe that failure and disappointment are not all there is. Sports teach perseverance, which is a key element of our faith."

Shelley believes that a Christian approach to competition boils down to competing with an opponent, rather than competing against her. "The Bible encourages us to do our best in all things. Colossians 3:23 says, 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.' When we compete, it should be to push ourselves to excel, not to make others look bad." That doesn't leave room for intimidation, trash talk, or dirty play. Instead, we can encourage our young athletes to do their best and enjoy using the abilities God gave them.

When kids learn the tenets of healthy, relaxed competition, they will impact and inspire everyone around them. Kauchak remembers a 10-year-old softball player with a broken leg who sat on the bench during every game one summer, cheering on her team.

"She persevered for months, and finally the doctor gave her permission to bat during the last game," Kauchak says. "She walloped one, and her teammates cheered and were so happy for her. She only had one hit that summer, but what a great athlete she was!" Attitude really can make a difference.

As our children compete in different activities, this is our chance to support, encourage, and affirm them, whether they win, lose, or sit on the bench. After all, we're their biggest cheerleaders!

"Your enthusiasm and confidence will be reflected in your kids," says Dan Watzke. "If a child has lost a game and is still smiling and had a good time, then you know you've succeeded. This is healthy competition."

Cindy Crosby's book

Waiting for Morning: Hearing God's Voice in the Darkness

(Baker) will be out in June.

Real Winners

With the right coaches and parental guidance, sports can be a powerful vehicle for strengthening your child's faith. Gary DeClute founded Illinois-based Sports Ministries in 1984 when he partnered with his local church to form an evangelical sports camp. The grass-roots effort has grown into a national organization called Victory Camps where children from kindergarten through twelfth grade can receive professional instruction in soccer, basketball, baseball, football, and faith.

The week-long, half-day camps consist of instruction and practice on the fundamentals of the particular sport intertwined with stories and lessons that contain a biblical message. "Spiritual dimension, coaching role models, and an emphasis on Christian community are what set us apart from other sports camps," says DeClute. In addition to Victory Sports Camps, DeClute took an idea from his 13-year-old son to kick off a traveling soccer club using the same evangelical mission as the camps. His son saw it as an opportunity to have an influence on his non-Christian friends. Eleven years later, Kopian Football Club is growing by leaps and bounds in the Chicago area. DeClute explains, "Kopian's philosophy is to produce the best players and help mold them into a team of players who can compete at the highest level. We try to develop players who have credibility, integrity, and the sense that this sport is about more than just one person. This is about Jesus Christ and his kingdom."

For more information on Victory Soccer Camps or Kopian Football Club, call 630-690-7819.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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