Friday, February 5, 2010

Reflections on competitive sports for kids Part 2

One of the first things I discovered as a noob badminton mum (as opposed to the soccer mum), was that not all sports are created equal. I'm not talking about prestige or sports techniques - I'm referring to the psychological impact on the child. This is most apparent when we compare team sports vs individual sports. Simply put, in a team sport, the pressure to win is shared among all the players whereas in individual sports, the responsibility lies squarely on one person. One of Andre's friends dropped out of badminton and switched to hockey instead because he didn't like the pressure that came with an individual sport.

Even among individual sports, there are differences and this is purely from my observation. In sports like swimming, track and field or wushu, the focus is on individual performance, bettering a record or clocking a time. There is less of a sense of "losing" a game vs you merely didn't win. Whereas with sports where you directly compete against someone, eg. racquet sports, judo or fencing, the focus is on defeating your opponent. Either you win or you lose.

These one-on-one, face-to-face matches require a certain level of self-confidence and nerve, as I discovered. In December last year, we signed Andre up for a badminton competition. This being his first competition, he had no idea what to expect. He didn't know what the procedures were, even when to switch courts or take a water break. Unfortunately, he met a very strong opponent in the first round who obviously had matches under his belt, and was decimated. Halfway through the match when it was clear that Andre was losing, his shoulders slumped and we could tell that he had given up. He was devastated at losing the match and cried himself to sleep that night. This being the first experience for us parents as well, we were not prepared on how to handle the situation.

It was then that I realised just how big an emotional toll competitive sports can have on kids. For these youngsters, we can spout competition for the experience and sportsmanship but chances are, they just want to win. In the inter-school badminton competition, I saw signs of this everywhere. More than one child, after losing a match, broke down. In fact, the self-confidence was so fragile that often, when they lose one set, they almost always concede the second set easily. Only those with more experience or maturity were able to keep their cool and fight back.

Think about it, even professional athletes have been known to break down in defeat, let alone 9-year-olds. I remember watching the classic 1992 French Open finals between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. It was closely fought and when Seles eventually pipped her rival to take the title, Graf was practically in tears.

I'd previously voiced my opinion to the head of PE in Andre's school that sports shouldn't be about winning (when he was considering scrapping badminton as a CCA) and he made this comment, "That's true but it's very demoralising for kids to keep losing." Much as I want to dismiss this as glib, I now know this has an element of truth. While sports shouldn't just be about the medals, to have a continuous streak of losses is extremely demoralising, especially for young kids. It takes a very determined and self-assured individual (plus supportive parents) to be able to pick himself up every single time and go on.

And here's the rub: there's a chance that certain kids may never be able to perform at the winning level - there are no guarantees in sports. How many losses will it take to completely erode a child's self-esteem? That's why I was so thankful that Andre managed to win a couple of matches - it's easier to learn how to lose when you've won some.

A friend whose son is a secondary school tennis player told me she hates watching his matches because it's so hard to see him lose, sometimes due to bad sportsmanship on his opponent's end. When he was in primary school, sometimes after he had lost a match, he would come home and cry bitterly. Today, he's doing very well but make no mistake about it, it's a tough road.

I think as parents, if our kids choose this path, we have to be mentally prepared. Competitive sports for kids in Singapore can be pretty ruthless. At the badminton inter-school tournament, one mother overheard a coach telling his students, "Remember, the face is the target. Aim for the target." It's not illegal, just very aggressive play. Sometimes, there's even a complete disregard for sportsmanship. I blame this on a culture that constantly emphasises and rewards winning.

Andre's badminton coach feels that Singapore stresses too much on competitions - he thinks there's plenty of time for that later and that the focus should be on laying the foundation for a love of the sport and developing skills instead. Ang Peng Siong, ex-national swimmer and swim coach, cautions against putting kids through intensive sports training too early as there is a risk of burnout due to physical and mental immaturity.

I hear this all the time, that sports is great for character moulding and I agree, but I believe that not every child is suited for COMPETITIVE sports. Some kids cannot handle the pressure, others are just too sunny and placid to muster that important "killer instinct", some just don't have the drive. Yet some others may simply need more time to mature.

These are my reflections based on my own observations. Our decisions for Andre are also largely influenced by his personality and his passion. So this is the only advice I can offer - to take the cue from your child's disposition and interests, and decide whether this is a suitable route for him.


Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

I agree with your reflections which you have expressed so eloquently. Indeed, it takes a very strong and determined person to persevere and finish the race or game, even when there are signs in the beginning that he probably can't win cos he has met with an opponent who is better than him. All of us (and now our kids) have been taught that when we start on something, we have to finish it no matter what. But, to finish the job to the best of our ability, with the right attitude and in a God-honouring spirit no matter the outcome, well, that is a tough one.

I am sure your little fireball Andre will continue to work hard and do you proud.


monlim said...

LL: Thanks for the encouragement! It's definitely more gruelling than we'd previously thought. We always tell Andre as long as he gives it his all, the outcome doesn't matter but in reality, it's easier said than done.

I'm praying hard that he will indeed build his character through sports so he will come to appreciate its intrinsic value.

eunice said...

Sometimes it's not the kids that are not up to competitive sports, it's the parents! Sean is currently trying out for the FOBISSEA games (they have to swim, track, field, soccer and T-ball) and you should see the parents! Some want it as badly as their kids or even more!

Anonymous said...

So true, Mon, it is not easy to get into competitive sports. So if a child has what it takes, then parents should support it to the best of your ability like what Mon has said.

I also feel that character building through sports' passion is far better than daily preaching.


monlim said...

Eunice: Unfortunately you will always find some parents who are into something for themselves and not for the kids, not only in sports!

QX: If there's no passion, it would be hard for the child to keep at it. Probably that's where burnout occurs, which is sad :(

Anonymous said...

"'s easier to learn how to lose when you've won some." So true.

I would definitely not be a competitive sports material - I usually avoid confrontation unless I have no choices. The thought of an aggressive opponent staring into my eyes already sends chills down my spine.

But people who love competitive sports are also the ones companies sought after for those sales positions. Hmm.. maybe Andre can develop a career in sales in future.


monlim said...

SC: I never realised how important personality was until I saw how some kids were so Type B that they didn't have the drive to win matches! But on the flip side, they're usually very nice kids, so perhaps competitive sports is just not their thing :)

Sales for Andre? No idea... maybe he can sell badminton racquets? Or Lego!

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

Love reading your blog.

My son plays in a sport competitively. He is just natural with the game and plays well without much training unlike his peers.

Anyway, he has been attacked verbally by parents who have kids in the same training programs. Parents of kids who are obviously of no competition to my son. One of the parents started cheering for his child during a practice session and telling his child that my son was a lousy player and his son could defeat my son easily! Well, his child was defeated by my son with "0" all the way. After the match, the parent actually walked to my son and telling my son that my son's coach was a "pig"!! I was saddened when my son related the incident to me. It was just a practice session. Luckily My son was not affected by it, so I let the matter rest.

There are also incidents of children breaking down when they loose a match, because their parents are constantly staring at them and putting preasure on the children to win the match!

It is a game my son loves dearly but the environment is quite "ugly" I find. I wish parents can just stay away and let the children play and enjoy the game!


Anonymous said...

Taking part in competitive sports helps one to take things in stride. Depends on how you look at it... They may break down and cry when they lose the game but I seriously think they would learn something more from the game they lose.
~ my

Anonymous said...

He won't be interested to just sell badminton rackets or Lego lah,can see cannot buy ALL, how? Competitive people are driven by sales targets, big commissions and variable bonuses. Eg. Banks or Oil Companies' Relationship Managers (RMs)?


monlim said...

Dash: I agree it's important to let a kid enjoy the game, the biggest reason why kids quit sports is because it stops being fun.

MY: I think so too... just that as parents, sometimes sim tiah lor :P

SC: Wah, you have such faith in his abilities!! Dunno leh, he seems more interested in buying stuff than selling it as this moment :D

Anonymous said...

Heehee, my occupational hazard? I go thru tonnes of CVs everyday.


monlim said...

SC: oic! Well, if he ever does end up in sales, I'll remember that you called it first :)

angiefm said...

I read somewhere recently that the winning team is never the one which says "it's only a game". So here's to winning and to developing sportsmanship! And BAH to all the PIG parents out there! :D

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...