I think the dichotomy between competitive and cooperative sports has evolved primarily because of a failure to connect the divergent philosophies with the developmental, cognitive, and physical abilities of children. Both approaches are necessary components of adult life, and children need to learn when and where they’re appropriate. Successful Individual and team forms of competition are based on the merger between the desire to win and the need to cooperate with coaches, trainers and teammates. The drawbacks of either approach lie in the child’s ability or inability to manage the emotions and thoughts corresponding to his situation. Winning feels good, losing feels bad, a truth for both children and adults. Understanding and processing these feelings requires experience with both. Parents, as the child’s first teacher, both discuss and model the child’s initial experiences in these areas. Parents, as the ones who know their child the best, also make the important decision about the child’s first organized athletic approach. Actually with school or childcare often occurring at the age of two, our children are also increasingly subjected to the values of “strangers”.
Exaggerated emphasis on winning, and excessive criticism for mistakes, are unfortunately frequent components of competitive environments. These types of experiences can lead to children avoiding competition and sports, feeling embarrassed or inadequate, becoming sore losers, and possibly set the stage for future bullying by the “athletic “crowd. Children need to learn to take appropriate risks, persevere and work hard, learn from mistakes and improve, become members of a team, motivate and be motivated by others, accept and learn from both their own experience and the experiences of coaches and colleagues. Quitting in the face of frustration or constructive criticism is not conducive to success and young children should not be subjected to excessive pressures in these areas. Competition taught properly, and within the developmental level of the child, is an important component of growing up, and a significant aspect of successful adult life.
Rewards for participation and equality of playing time, with no winners or losers and no better or worse, also has within it important values and qualities necessary for adult life. Accepting people for whom they are, including both their strengths and weaknesses and their similarities and differences, is a prerequisite for community life. Everyone needs to feel some sense of joy over being part of a social group, of participating in shared goals, of experiencing cooperation and compassion. Supportive group environments, like families and early team sports, can provide the opportunity and experience a child needs in order to develop these characteristics. Unqualified reward, however, if consistently independent of the child’s actual behavior, can be as detrimental to the child as excessive criticism and competition. Honest feedback provides the information children need to learn and change. Gratuitous reward excessively distributed can be misleading, and fails to support a realistic sense of competence and skill.