Michael Jordan’s exploits on the basketball court are the stuff of legend. Many credit Jordan’s competitive drive for helping him rack up a nearly unparalleled collection of individual and team accolades — but they also point to his cutthroat spirit as one of the factors that made him a notorious trash-talker whose wrath his teammates couldn’t even escape.
Even though one of the top athletes in the world couldn’t do it, it is possible to balance a competitive drive with good sportsmanship and respect for your opponents. So how can parents encourage competitiveness in their kids without leading them to be a sore winner? What does it look like for a kid to be driven to excel while remaining gracious in both victory and defeat?
Psychologist Doug Jowdy, Ph.D., author of The Gold Medal Mind: Becoming a Psychologically Skilled Athlete, says, competitive athletes have a higher need for achievement, “And within need for achievement, there's a healthy need for achievement and unhealthy need for achievement — the unhealthy being when it's coming out of feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.” In the face of disappointment, kids with an unhealthy need for achievement might act out by shutting down when subbed out of the game and beating themselves up internally. Or they might act out by slamming the ball into the ground, arguing with the coach, or blaming their teammates.
For parents, the challenge is helping their competitive kids operate from a place of felt security so that responses to winning and losing aren’t grounded in their insecurities. Jowdy recommends using these three tactics to do just that.
Rule #1. Emphasize Learning Over Winning
In his time as the team psychologist for the U.S. Olympic speed skating team, Jowdy worked with elite athletes who put tremendous emphasis on winning competitions, especially because an athlete may only have one shot at representing their country in the Olympic Games. So it might be a surprise to hear him elevate learning over winning.
“Athletes motivated by fear feel like they have to win or do well in order to get recognition. They need that recognition to feel like they are complete or successful,” Jowdy says. “When they don't, it's crushing, and it leads to this emptiness. They're expecting sport to do for them what they can't do for themselves. They're looking for achievement or performance to fill them up.”
Even when kids lose, parents can praise them for working hard and with the right attitude. It’s a matter of praising process instead of performance, which can result in kids who find joy in rising to meet the challenges sport provides rather than only having fun when they take home the gold.
This mindset isn’t only valuable in athletics — it also translates to aspects of life like school and work.
“A parent’s job is to fill their child up independent of performance so they develop a healthy need for achievement where they go out in the world and embrace challenges,” Jowdy says. “You want them to have a ‘bring it on’ mindset where they’re able to say to themselves, ‘I want my opponent to be as talented and as good as they can to bring out the best in me. They're not a threat. I'm doing this for the challenge, and it has nothing to do with who I am.’”
Confronting a challenge head-on carries an intrinsic reward for kids operating out of a place of security instead of fear. As opposed to gloating over an opponent in victory because of an inflated sense of supremacy, they find satisfaction in having withstood the challenge.
Rule #2. Help Your Kid Through Defeat — But Not Too Much
One of the pitfalls of putting too high a value on sporting success is that it’s so often elusive. Injuries, bad luck, spotty officiating, or simply running up against a superior opponent can keep even the most prepared athlete from coming out on top.
Jowdy encourages parents to give kids a clear-eyed assessment of what to expect when playing sports and to teach their children how to use the many disappointing moments they face for their long-term benefit.
“By playing a sport, you are running the risk of being disappointed or let down,” he says. “But the blessing in the gift of sport is that kids learn that life is not all about fun and feeling good and being happy. Being upset is part of life. And kids learn to cope with being upset and disappointed after they lose or miss the game-winning shot. We're not going to run to the rescue and take that pain away. The heartbreak is real.”
Instead of trying to rescue kids during those painful moments, parents can demonstrate empathy, acknowledge their kid's disappointment, and sit with them as they process the experience. You may not be able to rescue your kid from disappointment (and shouldn’t), but you can also communicate that you won’t leave them alone in their pain.
It’s the recipe behind one of the most powerful scenes during the first season of Ted Lasso. Addressing his team following an excruciating loss, the coach frames the moment profoundly for the guys in the somber locker room: “I want you to be grateful that you're going through this sad moment with all these other folks. Because I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad, and that is being alone and being sad. Ain't nobody in this room alone.”
The flip side is that an athlete who knows the pain of losing but is able to process it in a healthy way should be able to look empathetically on an opponent they’ve defeated. That doesn’t mean they have to suppress all victory celebrations. Winning should still be fun. But kids who know the pain of loss can better honor their opponent's effort and competitive spirit in a respectful way while enjoying their success.
Rule #3. Hold Your Child Accountable To Good Sportsmanship
Whether in victory or defeat, kids have a choice as to how they respond. They can respectfully engage referees they disagree with or slam the ball into the ground and yell. They can respond to a cheap shot with resolve or hit back. They can taunt their opponent after a big play or acknowledge their teammates for helping make the play happen.
But reactions have consequences — or at least they should. Jowdy believes that on the whole, parents and coaches should expect more accountability from their kids for their actions.
“Kids can do things on the sports field that they can't do in the classroom — things they will get punished in school for doing,” like yelling at an authority figure. “And I feel the standard should be higher in sports. So the first order of business in helping kids cope is parents, as the authority, providing structure,” Jowdy says. The attitude toward a child should be, he says, “You made a choice to lose control. And if you keep doing that, there will be consequences.”
Unfortunately, a lot of talented kids feel entitled to sports participation because it’s a message that’s been reinforced by parents and coaches. Coaches can be hesitant to bench a star player because it will hurt the team. And parents may not be willing to make their kid sit out after losing their cool because they don’t want their kid to fall behind or find themselves in the coach’s doghouse.
And so lousy sportsmanship gets reinforced.
“We need to start with a philosophy that playing sport is a privilege, not a right. So if poor behavior continues, that athlete loses the privilege. Even if it’s not called out in the moment, unsportsmanlike conduct should incur a penalty in some way.”