Everyone Wins or Winner Takes All?: Clarifying The Youth Competitive Readiness Debate

Whether competition is developmentally appropriate for youth has sparked debate given the intense, exclusive win-at-all-cost culture in which we live. Those who support competition in youth suggest that competitive experiences are essential for kids to learn life lessons, and gain “competitive kid capital”. Through competition, kids learn to internalize the importance of winning, bounce back from losing, perform under time constraints and public scrutiny, and cope with stress.[1] From this perspective, competitive experiences are vital to development because they prepare youth for the results-driven realities of adulthood. Alternatively, critics of competition argue that hyper-competitive environments can undermine performance, detract from skill-specific development, and incite immoral attitudes and behaviors.[2] Specific to youth sport, many parents and coaches may take issue with exposing kids to cut-throat, winner-takes-all environments because of a child’s impressionable developmental stage. These skeptics often hold that children are less capable of understanding and handling competition—so instead, every kid gets a trophy and everyone wins.

Matthew Syed echoes the “we’ve-gotta-toughen-kids-up-for-the-real-world” stance in a recent article. Syed argues that real growth takes place in “dangerous spaces”. One such notable space, a signpost to a different kind of world, is sport. On competitive fields of play, athletes must grapple with opponents who seek to expose their weaknesses and challenge their resolve. Syed criticizes those in the “everyone-is-a-winner” camp for making today’s world too safe. He especially takes issue with the overly protective nature of school spaces (which include school sports). Classrooms with “trigger warnings” and carefully constructed playgrounds prevent kids from taking risks, confronting defeat, and defying temptations to quit when pushed outside their comfort zone. Syed draws on great present-day athletes (like Andy Murray and his 2012 Wimbledon loss to Roger Federer) who point to defeat, failure, and criticism as critical to their development and success. Syed’s take-home message: Adult leaders ought to coddle kids less and offer them more experiences in dangerous spaces to support their growth.

Whether “dangerous spaces” (such as competitive sport settings) are beneficial for youth is as relevant and contested as the topic is complex—far more so than Syed’s explanation offers. While Serena Williams, Andy Murray, and Michael Jordan may cite their greatest setbacks as instrumental to their success, where those professional athletes were/are in their developmental trajectory (as players and adults) is likely quite different from where younger athletes are in their process.

Youth are not miniature adults, and whether they are “ready” to compete is an ongoing process— not a finite point in time.

In fact, how young people understand competition and perceive their competitive context accurately capture its short- and long-term developmental impact.

Bottom line: If we want youth to really grow through the dangers of competition, we need to consider competitive contexts from the young athlete’s perspective.

The next series of posts provide a comprehensive breakdown of competitive readiness for the developing youth athlete. Part II will outline key age-related maturation trends that can bring clarity to the debate and help adult leaders meet kids where they are at. (Circle back next week for this post!) With these aspects of maturation in mind, Part III will elaborate on contextual factors involved in the competitive readiness process. Here, I will revisit the subject of “dangerous” and “safe” spaces. I suggest that “safe” and “dangerous” can coexist—though careful to distinguish between making spaces “as safe as possible” and “as safe as necessary”.[3] Youth have unique biological growth AND behavioral developmental needs. Just as we’d coach kids through the basic fundamentals of swimming before throwing them into the pool, we need to guide and give them practice in how to interpret and respond to danger/failure. Spaces in which developing athletes feel psychologically safe are, in fact, optimal contexts in which they learn to embrace uncertainty, chaos, and adversity—and willingly test their limits through dangerous circumstances (tasks). These spaces are necessary for kids to grow the physical and motivational capacities that we revere in elite athletes. These spaces allow kids to thrive, not just survive, competition—in sport and life.

[1] Daniels, 2007; Friedman, 2013

[2] Kohn, 1992

[3] Brussoni, 2017

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