Is competition in sports healthy for kids?
Many parents have asked me if I think competition is healthy for kids. This topic always stirs controversy among parents, educators, coaches, psychologists, and sociologists. Is it healthy? Is it “toxic”? Does it diminish self-confidence and destroy lives? Or does it develop an appreciation for the fact that “life is hard”?
With my job and knowledge of sports medicine, I have helped and coached hundreds of children aged five to ten in soccer over the past 20 years. and I have also been extensively involved in creating and managing leagues and competition formats to support optimal early player development. Here’s what I have witnessed:
Sport competition is meaningless for most kids under the age of seven or eight years. It’s that simple. Below this age, most kids derive more pleasure from playing a simple game of tag than “competing” in an organized sport. They won’t push themselves to the limit where we need to consider injuries and sports medicine treatments too often if at all. Maybe a tumble or a bruise here and there, but nothing big, even with parents pushing them to do so. However, I say most kids for a reason. Some kids do have a basic understanding and desire to compete below this age, but they are a small percentage. Sometimes these kids will actually exhaust themselves or actually injure something, but with rest and the proper treatment they recover quickly and fully.
Related read: Are youth sports too serious?
Does this mean competitive sports at these younger ages are “unhealthy” or inappropriate? Not necessarily. First, it depends on the kid. Second, I think we need to ask a different question. If kids don’t understand competition at these young ages, why would they play a sport?
The answer? Sports are fun.
Fun is the number one reason why kids play sports. When young kids score a goal in soccer or a basket in mini basketball, they feel happy and they experience fun. They are participating in a competitive activity, and the experience is fun for them, even if they don’t have their eyes on a trophy.
These kids are happy because they tried to execute a particular skill, they were successful, and it felt good. I have seen hundreds of kids who have the opportunity to experience this kind of fun week after week grow to love whatever sport they are playing, and it’s this love of the game that keeps them playing into adolescence and beyond.
Conclusion? Organized sport competition at young ages can be perfectly healthy. The key is to keep it fun. After all, it’s well-established that the number one reason kids play sports is to have fun, and when they don’t have fun, it’s because adults spoil it for them by parents going wild or coaches being bullies.