Kids Exercise: Competition vs Participation?

There are some topics that will always get emotions firing from all different directions;  Should marijuana be legal?, What should the minimum drinking age be?, Who should be our political leaders? Well today I’m going to talk about one of the hot topics in the area that I know best in life, exercise. Here it is: 

Should kids sport/exercise be about participation or should competition be encouraged?  

I’m sure as you read this you have come up with an instant response, the one that is already pre-determined in your mind. There’s a concept called confirmation bias that I would like to introduce before I go any further. The best way to describe confirmation bias is that if you already have a view on a certain topic, when you are presented with new content or differing views you are constantly looking for reasons to justify your thinking and opinion. I experienced this when I watched the political debates before the last election. My lovely partner and I had differing views on who we would vote for and after the debate we both thought that our leader had done the best job. Confirmation bias also makes us tend to read magazines, watch TV shows and listen to radio shows that back up and confirm the thinking we already have. So all I ask is that you be aware of your bias as you read on. 

So what is better, competition or participation? I thought I would put an argument forward for each side. Let me put my competitive hat on first:


There's a scene in the film Dead Poets Society where the teacher character that Robin Williams plays talks about how competition gives us the ability to find higher levels in ourselves. It is one of the magical things about competition; it takes most of us to a place that we could not get to by ourselves.

When you are racing in a running or cycling event, playing sport against another team or lifting weights with a training partner who is of similar ability, competition has the ability to show you the next level in yourself.

Proving to ourselves we are better than others can drive us to set goals that get us out of bed earlier, push us a little harder in training and improve our character traits, such as discipline and hard work, creating the belief that we can apply these to other areas of our lives.

Let us not forget we love a winner. We hold winners up in society; they get presented as our role models, what we should aspire to. You can see it in New Zealand sport: the only time sports outside of the top three of rugby, netball and cricket get any exposure is when they are winning.

We should help our kids to aspire to be the best. Life rewards the people who are top of their fields. It is often found that the "best people" get an unfair slice of the rewards pie in life.

For example: All Black Dan Carter is arguably the world's best player in his position. But how much better is he than the next best first five-eighth in New Zealand? When you look at the stats, is he 95 per cent, 50 per cent or 25 per cent better, based on measurable qualities?

While I do not have the statistics in front of me, I think you would find that he is more likely to be somewhere around 5 to 10 per cent better than the next best player. So does that player only get 5 to 10 per cent less of the rewards than Carter? No, Carter definitely gets a much bigger piece of the pie.

You will find this in just about all areas of life, the best (winner) is only a little bit better than many others but they get a lot more of the rewards.

However, competition in sport can also prepare us for life. As kids grow into adults, they are entering a competitive world.

Their grades may present them with different career opportunities. If they move into business, they will need to keep a close eye on their competitors and make sure they keep improving their product or service to stay ahead of the game. The lessons they learn from sport at a young age will have value as they move into the big adult world.


And yet, I often wonder how you define what a great life is? While there could be many descriptions that could be considered, one that works for me is: a life well lived is one full of amazing experiences.

The more we expose ourselves to different types of experiences in life, the more we get opportunities to learn lessons about ourselves. Sport is one of the greatest ways to have these life experiences.

Here are some examples:

1. Through sport, kids can be put in situations where they experience many different types of emotions. This can be the joy of success, the fear of failure, the nervousness before a game and the high of moving your body fast.

2. They get to develop healthy relationships with people they would not normally be exposed to. These can be adults, such as coaches, who can mentor their growth, or the club director.

3. They can learn great social habits around teamwork and working within rules - lessons that are important for so many reasons.

4. Sport can instil good habits around everyday life such as commitment, discipline and respect.

5. The friendships you can make through sport are often lifelong. The bond that sport creates can be a great platform for relationships that can be a valuable part of all your life.

For these reasons and more, it is important that we try to get as many kids as possible taking part in some type of sport.

However, you also have to look at what barriers stop kids from participation. These would include parents who do not encourage their kids towards sport, the expense of some sports, and schools that do not try to include as many kids playing. These examples are all external of the child, but one of the biggest barriers to taking part is the child feeling they are not good enough.

Think about yourself. Is there an area of your life where you do not feel you are any good - music, running, maths, dancing?

When the opportunity presents itself in your insecure area, what do you do? Most of us try to avoid it. So if our kids feel they are not good at sport, what are they going to do?

But what makes kids feel that they are not good at sport? One of the biggest things are the expectations put on them by others and, when the all the of the positive attention goes towards winners, it can move the non-winning participant to feel that they are not good enough.

If we identify that a big part of sport is the development of skills, we can recognise that all kids will have different skill-set levels. While the winning kids obviously have more natural ability, they probably have spent more time developing their skills.

This does not mean the non-winning kids cannot use sport as a great way to develop themselves. The problem can be that, by creating environments which put all the energy into the successful kids and make the others feel bad about themselves, we can be closing the door to many of the great benefits that sports can offer all kids.

So which side of the argument should win? Should we encourage more competition or greater participation? For me, the answer does not have to be black and white - it is more about what questions we are asking ourselves around the problem. We want to get as many kids playing sport, but we also want to encourage competition in a way that does not create insecurities. So how do we do that?

I do not have all the answers. But here is an example of a coaching session I took a few weeks back. I had a run-training session for about 20 9-to-12-year-old kids. Obviously, a few were the elite of the group and they loved to show that they were the best, running circles around the others. While they were doing this, I could tell the slower kids were starting to lose focus, get despondent and give up. I picked up on this and decided to change the way I was doing the session.

I picked the teams myself based on the different abilities, trying to make them evenly matched, then I created games which were inclusive, made everyone work together for their team and encouraged everyone to do their best.

The fastest kids were still going as fast as they could but they were then encouraging their team-mates along. All of a sudden, every kid was giving it their best. After the session, I got feedback from all the parents telling me that their kids really enjoyed it, including the slower ones.

Despite that success, I have far from nailed this stuff. However, I believe that there needs to be a shift from the conversation being about competition versus participation towards how do parents, school teachers, sport coaches and fitness professionals create sporting environments that get as many kids loving sport?

How can we help kids of all abilities identify where their skills are and what the next steps forward for them are? How do we create games where the competition works for all levels (this could be handicapped games or time-trial point games where the kid has to beat their own score which goes towards the team score). Lastly, how do we put more emphasis on so many of the other benefits of sport?

Sadly, I suspect the competition versus participation argument will continue and I worry that the longer it goes on the more kids will grow up not learning how important it is to have sport in your life.

But instead of having this same old tired argument, why don't we think about changing the discussion towards shifting how we can create sporting environments so we can have as many kids as possible feel good about themselves because of sport.

This way, the next generation will have a higher chance of growing into healthy kids, both physically and mentally, because they have a love of sport and exercise.


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Bevan Eyles