Everyone Wins or Winner Takes All?: A Developmental Perspective

Adult leaders can only ensure that competition is appropriate and empowering for youth when we understand kids’ unique needs and perspective. Research points to 7 to 12 years of age as a critical developmental period in a young person’s competitive readiness process. During this time, most youth experience significant developmental changes including physical, cognitive, and psychosocial maturation. (The term psychosocial refers to how social factors (such as peer pressure) impact and are influenced by a person’s thoughts/actions.) Before sorting out the danger versus safe space debate in youth sport generally, discussion of these developmental factors is a necessary starting point. We can glean useful information to clarify when, and how, to effectively expose kids to competition.

Physical Maturation

Physical growth that occurs between the ages of 7 and 12 follows a relatively consistent progression of changes. Though the rate at which kids experience bodily transformations may vary, changes associated with puberty show age-related trends.[1] Girls typically enter puberty around 10-11 years of age, whereas boys do so around 12-13 years old. Girls also typically reach full physical maturation before boys.[2] Physical development leads to changes in anthropometric (e.g., height, weight, and muscle mass) and fitness (e.g., speed, endurance, and strength) characteristics of which coaches and parents should be mindful in order to ensure that young athletes have the physiological capacity to meet the physical demands of a sport.[3]

What do these physical changes mean for the developing young athlete?

  • Realistic expectations of youth players’ physical capabilities (based on age, skill level, and experience) enhance their physical and motivational capacity.

Coaches who are aware of these physical trends can appropriately structure training and games to optimally challenge youth. Optimal challenges are tasks that are difficult, but achievable. These tasks are essential for building a young player’s physical and motivational (psychological) capacity. Youth athletes must acquire mental skills just as they do physical skills. Optimal challenges can effectively enhance actual ability and offer young athletes feelings of confidence, control, and enjoyment. These athletes are also more likely to persist through adversity and continue their participation. More than throwing youth players into activities and onto equipment designed for adults, coaches need to make adjustments—where necessary—for kids. Meeting youth athletes where they are not only enables them to build their technical skills (i.e., physical capacity), but also develop their ability to cope with stress and overcoming setbacks (i.e., motivational capacity).

  • A child’s rate of physical development can influence coach (and parent) expectations about the distribution of playing opportunities to youth athletes.

Youth who mature earlier relative to chronological age can experience physical changes that advantage (or disadvantage) them given the demands of their sport. For example, increasingly competitive youth sport programs may overlook late maturing male athletes and offer them fewer opportunities to develop competencies, despite their actual potential.[4] Early physical maturation may have reverse effects for girls: social norms regarding sport proficiency tend to guide coaches (and organizations) to interpret physical changes that girls experience during puberty (e.g., widening of hips and increase in body fat) as detrimental to athletic performance.[5] As such, coaches/parents may limit early maturing females’ opportunities to develop physical skills and discourage competitive participation—especially in sports that advantage those with a linear build such as gymnastics.

Cognitive Maturation

Knowledge of trends and variations in cognitive maturation that youth experience between 7 to 12 years of age can offer insight into how kids understand competition during their developmental process. Though young children may still be able to show concern over outperforming others, they are typically more task-involved. They equate effort with ability (undifferentiated perspective), and view task difficulty based on whether the task is easy or difficult for them. These youth tend to be less preoccupied with how others are doing and more absorbed in their own learning and effort. Given this cognitive reality, competition is likely irrelevant for kids 6 and younger. At ages 7-8, kids may begin to differentiate effort from ability (but do so without consistency). Their capacity to distinguish effort and ability (differentiated perspective) develops as children cognitively mature (around 11-12 years old). That is, players understand that winning requiring little effort (for them or their opponent) is due to high ability, and that effort may only enhance ability up to an individual’s personal capacity. All youth in this age range do not necessarily adopt a differentiated perspective, but can choose to use undifferentiated or differentiated criteria to evaluate their ability.[6]

What do these cognitive changes mean for the developing young athlete?

  • The growing capacity to differentiate effort from ability impacts how youth understand competition and their competitive readiness process.

Kids with an undifferentiated (or partially differentiated) perspective who play sports that primarily use others’ referenced criteria (e.g., beating the opponent) to measure success may prevent them from understanding and focusing on what personal skills (task goals) they should execute when they put forth effort. Coaches can offer direction on how to work hard in order to allow youth to improve—even when they do not fully understand that certain types of effort (more than others) can make up for differences in ability. As youth more consistently adopt a differentiate perspective, a focus on personal markers of success and task goals is beneficial for a different developmental reason. For older youth, information on strategies that make effort fruitful support the motivational capacity and continued growth of low and high ability players alike.[7]

Psychosocial Maturation

Knowledge of psychosocial changes that kids experience between 7 to 12 years of age is useful to understand how youth evaluate competition. Youth rely on different individuals for competence, or ability, information depending on their developmental stage.[8] Younger children (4 to 7 years old) conceive of ability generally; however, as they cognitively mature (7 to 12 years old) youth begin to diversify their sources of competence information. They are more inclined to use peer comparison and coach evaluative feedback instead of relying on parents to primarily inform self-appraisals of ability. Eventually, older children and adolescents (13 to 18 years old) use more self-referenced, self-regulated information (e.g., personal improvement and enjoyment) to guide their judgments. As youth differentiate effort and ability and diversify sources of ability information, they improve the accuracy of self-perceptions.[9] So, social comparison information can be valuable in measuring relative ability.[10]

What do these psychosocial changes mean for the developing young athlete?

  • Youth can value winning, but need to prioritize improving over proving themselves in necessary for continued learning and growth

Use of social comparison information (e.g. winning/losing) is not inherently harmful. Kids do not need to avoid competition in which social comparison is natural part of the play; and, coaches/parents do not need to discourage use of that information entirely.[11] However, whether a focus on beating the opponent is advantageous depends on why youth competitors want that information. When athletes want information with an interest in appearing superior over others rather than discovering new levels of personal excellence, an others’-referenced viewpoint can undermine their focus on personal, task goals necessary for long-term growth. Coaches (and youth) can certainly value winning—but for low and high ability athletes alike—prioritizing personal goals best supports continued learning, intrinsic motivation, and performance. This self-referenced emphasis guards against learned helplessness in low ability athletes, and prevents complacency and a developmental plateau in high ability athletes.

Adult leaders can better ensure that competition provides kid with opportunities to develop their physical and motivational capacities. A breadth of fundamental sport skills, passion for sport, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and courage to attack challenges/uncertainty are attributes we hope to see mature in young players. Coaches (and parents) can only do so when they understand the individual needs of the developing athlete. We need to adopt a developmental perspective. Knowledge of BIG maturational trends (and variation) between 7 to 12 year-olds offers a useful starting point to understand how kids understand competition and their competitive context. One cautionary note: athletes who have fully matured physically, cognitively, and psychosocially are not automatically “ready” to compete. For example, internal and external stressors (lack of social support, highly rigorous training/practice loads, and pressure to succeed) can nudge developing individuals out of a state of readiness. Such is the case when when athletes experience burnout.

Remember: Competitive readiness is a process rather than one fixed point in time.

The last post (Part III) in this series will elaborate on other factors (which are related to maturation) that influence the youth competitive readiness process. Here, I revisit the dangerous versus safe space debate, and offer some ideas about what environments coaches can create to prepare athletes to thrive, not just survive, dangerous spaces in sport and life.


[1] Horn et. al., 2015

[2] Malina et al., 2004

[3] Horn et al., 2015; Shah, 2009

[4] Growing trends to more quickly expose youth who appear talented because of their physical advantage (i.e., early maturers) into highly specialized sports deny late maturers opportunities to develop fundamental skills. For select groups of youth specializing, such participation can also have deleterious long-term effects on their intrinsic motivation, physical health, and well-being (Horn et. al., 2015; Malina, 2010).

[5] Horn et al., 2010

[6] Nicholls, 1984, 1989; Weiss & Williams, 2004

[7] Quested & Duda, 2011; Theeboom et al., 1995

[8] Harter, 1999; Weiss & Williams, 2004

[9] Harter, 1999; Weiss et al., 2008

[10] Shields & Bredemeier, 2009

[11] Shields & Bredemeier, 2009

One thought on “Everyone Wins or Winner Takes All?: A Developmental Perspective

  1. Interesting post Jill – I look forward to the discussion on “dangerous vs. safe space.” Coaches always talk about players that “want the ball in the big moment.” I’ve always thought that one of the best lessons sports can teach is how to ENJOY – yes enjoy! – pressure.

    I had a moment last year coaching my boys’ basketball team in the championship game of a tournament. It was a team that had blown us out just a day prior, and here we were up a couple of points with about a minute to play. The other team was about to inbound the ball on offense after a timeout, and their fans were going nuts. It was an awesome atmosphere, and even though I was nervous and I’m sure my players were nervous, I just had to smile. I looked at my bench and then somehow caught the attention of my players on the court, who were waiting in their zone defense for play to resume, and I just started clapping with the biggest smile on my face. And they started to smile too! I have no idea if it made a difference, if it actually loosened them up or anything like that, but we played confidently down the stretch and went on to win the game. I just remember feeling vindicated in the approach that pressure can be fun, adversity can be fun, and that above all it’s the joy of competing and testing your process that makes sports so much fun. It’s a bit of a Buddhist or meditative perspective, in a way – just trying to be present to every moment and every emotion, rather than always running from discomfort toward comfort. Pressure, pain, difficulty – one can view these as “different flavors of life” – emotions to be tasted and understood and welcomed; not merely overcome.

    Thanks for sharing as always Jill!
    Coach B


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