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Competition – Why Kids Need to Play to Win

The performance-enhancing effects of competition and teams do not apply only at elite levels such as the Olympics or in physical match-ups. Competitions held in classrooms and lunch rooms across the country also push kids to do better. – KQED

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Some time back, I was at a children’s party. The adults were milling around half chatting and half watching the children “compete” in the usual party games. At the end of the games, the party emcee made sure that every child had “won” a prize.

At the sight of that, one of the adults laughingly said, “These days, everyone wins a prize.”

That comment brought me back years to my own childhood. I thought of the many times when I went home empty-handed because I didn’t win. Sure it was disappointing but I can hardly say that I was scarred by it. What happened to make us so worried about our children that we can’t even send them home from a party without a prize?

The Adversity Quotient: Why Children Need to Lose Sometimes

We talk about how important it is for children to face adversity – doesn’t it seem contrary to give every child a prize, regardless of whether they deserved it? I have heard more than one parent complain about how “kids these days only need to turn up to get a medal”.

“If kids don’t learn to lose they’re going to feel entitled to win. They’re also going to make a connection that fear of losing is going to prevent them from taking the risk in the first place. And what kids do need to learn is losing is not that big a deal. They need to learn to lose and go ‘Oh, whatever,’ and move on and keep playing.” – Po Bronson

How Your “Game Head” Affects Performance

Some years ago, one of my ex-companies had a intra-company sports event. There were trials to pick the best players for each sport and I made it onto the archery team. On competition day, all my arrows kept missing the mark. It seemed like the more I missed, the worse I got and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t nail a single bulls-eye. By the end of the competition, I had lost all my confidence. How had I had done so well in the trials? Did I fluke them?

When the competition was over, I picked up the bow and shot a few arrows at the target on a whim. To my surprise, my aim was back. My boss, who had been watching me, came up and asked, “What happened to you? Why couldn’t you shoot like that during the competition?”

I had no words because I didn’t know why either. Then another colleague explained it to me. My problem was that I didn’t have a game head. In other words, I fell apart the moment the pressure to compete was on.

People who compete regularly have more opportunities to control their fear of being judged or performing poorly… even professional athletes get nervous before a competition, but they’ve learned to use that anxiety to their advantage. – KQED

Competition: Developing Your “Game Head”

Years ago, I remember watching a program on TV where the presenter pointed out how even Madonna was trembling with nerves while she waited on stage to start her performance. Yes, we’re talking about Madonna, one of the top 10 music divas of all time. If Madonna can feel the butterflies even after all her years of experience, I think we can be assured that it isn’t a matter of learning how to eliminate the butterflies but rather learning “how to get them to fly in formation“.

Learning how to calm the nerves and fight the butterflies in our stomachs so we can put in our best effort when the stakes are high is important. The only way you can improve on that ability is through experience and practice. That means, doing the kind of activities that make us scared, like:

  • Public speaking
  • Concert performances
  • Sports competitions

And not just occasionally but regularly.

Competition for Good or Bad?

Beyond controlling the butterflies, competition (when done right) can teach children a lot of things, like:

Just like everything else in life, even good things can go bad if we don’t do it right. So what can go wrong with competition? Here are a few examples of how competition can be bad for kids:

  • when children pin winning to their self-worth – e.g. “if I don’t win, I’m lousy”.
  • if parents are more invested in the competition than their children.
  • when the competition is all about winning “whatever the cost”.
  • when the stress of competing overwhelms the child’s coping ability.

What Makes Competition Healthy?

Po Bronson mentions some features:

  • A “fighting chance” – it’s not so much about winning or losing but knowing you have a shot at winning. Although it should be noted that it is okay for kids to be the underdog from time to time – it helps them learn to work hard even when they are not the best.
  • Finite games with pressure that ebbs and flows – the danger with stress and pressure is when it doesn’t let up. Without the break for recuperation, pressure can be bad. What’s good about competitive games is that even though they create pressure, there is an end point to that pressure. Additionally, the friendship and camaraderie associated with these games can also help to buffer the stress of competing.

Like many things in life, competition can be good or bad for kids depending on how it’s handled. When it’s done right, children stand to gain a lot from the experience. As long as we are aware of the pitfalls and how to avoid them, competition is a terrific life experience that we should encourage all children to have.

If you want to learn more about competition, winning and losing, don’t miss this book:

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

Competition - playing to winIn a competitive situation our bodies can experience the same level of stress hormones as jumping out of a plane. Competition is often the key to outstanding achievement. But what is it that makes the difference between rising to the challenge and buckling under pressure?

Using groundbreaking studies in diverse scientific fields, Bronson and Merryman demonstrate that understanding how to harness our competitive fire means we can perform our best – whether the contest is sporting, academic or in the workplace.

  • Why are men typically prepared to gamble on long or even stupid odds and women aren’t?
  • Why do some less talented students consistently outperform their smarter class mates in crucial exams?
  • Why do higher levels of testosterone actually make you less selfish and more cooperative and cognitively astute?
  • Why do so many market-leading companies cede their top position because they become risk averse at the wrong times?
  • Why do sports teams where the pay differential between players is the greatest win more?


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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