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How Competitive Should My Kids Be?

Advice from a former Major League pitcher, a family psychologist, a trophy maker and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

When it comes to baseball, I’m something of a maniac. Usually this only comes out on my couch or at the Yankees game, where it’s perfectly acceptable to yell, cheer and angrily curse out the umps when they fuck up a call (like when they said Tyler Austin was out when anybody with a Goddamn pair of working eyes could see he was safe).

Anyway, little did I know that my innate baseball fever would transfer to my son’s Little League field: We’re only two games into the season, and my son said, and I quote, “I hate Terry.” (Terry, for those not familiar with the intricacies of my small-town baseball team, was the eight-year-old opposing pitcher during my son’s game last Saturday.)

Needless to say, I think my — let’s call it exuberance — has gone a bit too far and now my kid is taking it to a whole new level. So I want to calm him down, but I don’t want to stamp out that competitive streak altogether, because, well, isn’t it important to be a little bit competitive?

Basically: How competitive should my kid be?

The Expert Advice

Rick Greene, father and former Major League pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds: It’s never okay to push. Encourage? Absolutely. When choosing what to have them get involved in, I took the approach of watching what my kids did. Did they watch a certain sport? Did they talk about a certain activity like gymnastics or basketball, etc? Then giving them options was always key.

I was especially cautious about what their friends were playing. I never wanted them to play on a team just because a bunch of their friends were. I made hundreds of new friends in my life playing on teams where I didn’t know anyone until joining the team.

One thing that drives me crazy is the fact that some people think the rules don’t apply to them. It shouldn’t matter if someone thinks they will go pro — the odds are very, very slim that your kid will go pro. Still, the talented kids seem to have the most pushy parents, and they use the excuse that, “My kid is going pro” to be more vocal, to challenge coaches’ decisions and just be a general pain in everyone’s side.

Another important lesson I wanted my kids to learn at a very early age was that they wouldn’t get a hit every time or win every game. Parents these days, in my opinion, don’t let their kids fail, and in the end, this will hurt them more than they can imagine. Baseball, especially, is built on failure — three hits out of ten at bats means that you’re successful. That means that they fail seven times! Baseball, like life, will have many failures. It’s the strongest and most successful who learn to handle adversity and learn from that.

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: All the research out there says that there are positive things that come out of kids being involved in organized sports. It can teach them social skills, and they learn success and failure. They learn how to be a team member, and they physically learn a lot of motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

I do think, however, that we may be pushing our kids to do too much. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cross-training for kids, so that they don’t just play one sport but change seasonally. That way they can develop different muscle groups and have less injuries from overworking the same muscles. Or, if they’re only doing one sport, when that sport is out of season, they rest, because children do need rest.

As for how competitive a child should be, a lot of that depends on the kid. If, say, they want to quit because they’re losing or because someone is better than them, then it’s not a good life lesson to allow them to just give up. I always said to my kids that there’s always going to be someone faster, smarter, or prettier than you — there will always be someone “better,” but that doesn’t mean that you don’t do it.

In having that discussion, you’d also want to ask what they do like about the activity and remind them of why they joined to begin with — that may help to bring things into perspective.

Todd, father and youth soccer coach: When you see these parents that are arguing with the coaches or screaming from the bleachers, like, “Get ’em, get ’em, get ‘em!” they tend to breed this ultra-competitiveness into their kids. I’ve seen parents who believe that their kid is going to be a professional player, so they push them to live up to that idea — it’s really unhealthy. Oftentimes, when I see a parent push too hard, the kid ends up just trying to please the parent and they lose sight of the team. They end up taking a riskier, more difficult road because they think it will please the parent — they even sometimes take it out on the other players because the parents would talk about other players during the car ride home.

Keeping things light with some sort of competitiveness is the way to go. The trick for parents is knowing when your kid’s had too much, or not enough. The ideal parent observes what’s going on, lets the coach do what the coach does, and if they see something they don’t like from the coach, politely talks to them later in private. From there, I’d have the kid stick it out for the season so that they follow through on their commitments and see if things change. If they’re being abused mentally or physically, obviously that’s a different story, but parents should push them to work harder and be more resilient in a competitive atmosphere.

April, mom of a spelling bee team member: The main value for my daughter in competing in spelling competitions is that it got her interested in learning more words. She’d taken an interest in spelling in advance of the bee, so I asked her if she’d be interested and then we decided to sign her up. When preparing for a competition, I don’t push at all: We practice a few words each day, when we remember to. We just made it about fun — after all, these are elementary school kids.

David Hayes-Cohen, owner of FCC Gallery, a plaque-and-trophy making business: The sense of competition that kids learn from sports and academic competition is very important when it comes to life lessons. I was on sports teams growing up, and the ones I remember most fondly are the ones where I tried really hard, did exceptionally well, and as a result, won an MVP award or something like that. The recognition of my hard work was special.

The way I see it is that the world isn’t an easy place — once you get past elementary school, you’re probably not going to get a participation trophy for anything you do. I’m personally opposed to giving everyone a trophy… although I certainly won’t turn away the business if someone does want to give a trophy to every child.