This is how parents take the fun out of sports for kids


Back in my day, pass-the-parcel was a pretty simple game. At the birthday party, one child received the one prize after various layers of paper were unwrapped by various children to upbeat party beats. 

It would seem that the rules have changed. Now it could more aptly be called pass-the-parcel-of-many-parcels. Each child will receive a prize as they unwrap their layer of paper, lest they be bitterly disappointed they didn’t win something. 

As a parent I continue to grapple with the contradicting messages we put out there for our kids, particularly in the sporting arena: “It’s not about winning”, “try your best”, “go for gold”, “be in it to win it”. 

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Thing is, there is competition out there whether we like it or not. Some people get medals, recognition, jobs and the one pass-the-parcel prize, others don’t. 

Granted, there is a case to be made for taking a non-competitive stance, particularly in primary school sports, where it may encourage greater participation, fewer injuries, less stress and a long-term enjoyment of sport. 

But competition is all around us and that’s not a bad thing. As parents, regardless of our children’s struggles or skills, how we help them manage the competitive landscape, is key. So here are a few thoughts. 

1. Stand back: we had our chance

We have to allow our children the space to find their interests, their passion, their strengths. If you were the running champ at school, you may want your child to follow in your footsteps. Or perhaps sport wasn’t your thing, and now it’s become really important to you that your child succeeds on the field. Let our children lead us in what they want to be doing. Projecting our hopes, dreams, fears and failures onto our children does not make for happy endings. 

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2. Be cognisant of their age and stage 

The younger the child, the less likely they are to have the emotional maturity to handle losing. How we support them in losing can influence how they cope going forward. Of course, each child is different and some take to competition earlier than others.

3. Play fair

Let’s not kid ourselves: watching our children succeed feels great, we like it. But winning at all costs, that’s just not cool. 

I’ve been on the side of a soccer field where my son’s opponents have been playing dirty and other parents were encouraging our team to ‘play dirty back’. I don’t get that. Competition provides an opportunity to practise integrity. Surely that’s a vital value we want to instill in our children. Knowing you helped an opponent up, knowing that no matter how hard it felt at the time, you didn’t disrespect the ref – surely that’s the stuff that we want our children to take into the world. 

I hear you, the world can be cut throat and rough but if you don’t have integrity to stand you in good stead, the world will always feel shaky. 

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4. Try mixing it up

Exposing our children to things in which they do not necessarily excel is a good thing. I think we have to try and mix it up as much as we can while they are young. That does not mean overloading our children with extra murals by the dozens but it means not having a completely narrow focus at the age of 7 in a particular sport or position. 

5. Let them have fun!

It must be fun! They are children. It must be fun. 

6. Are you the coach/teacher?

Answer: No, you are the parent. Sounds simple but in practice (on match day in particular) it is not. There are many wannabe expert coaches in the parental spectator crowd. John O Sullivan, in his article How Parents Take the Joy Out of Sport, lists 6 ways that adults do just that: 

  • Coaching from the side-line ?
  • Yelling instructions while the ball is rolling ?
  • Disrespecting officials ?
  • Questioning the coach ?
  • Commenting on the child’s team mates ?
  • Making the ride home/post game talk a “teachable moment”. 

Our children generally do not like it when we do any of these – ask them. They like us cheering them on but they want us to be there as their parents. 

Also read: Pushy sport parents

7. But what if we lose?

There are such valuable lessons to be learned in not winning, in making mistakes, in failing. These are opportunities to build resilience in our children. 

We can help them to know that it’s okay to feel disappointed and to express that disappointment. But loss does not define them and there is a way past it. Life is inevitably going to throw challenges our children’s way – trying to protect them from the disappointment diminishes their experience and does not help them grow.

8. The check-in

Before we place our stamp of approval or disapproval on something, we should ask our children what they thought of their performance. Allow them the space to self-evaluate so that they are not dependent on what we think. 

We are often surprised at how incredibly insightful our children can be, given half a chance to share their thoughts. 

9. So can't we celebrate?

Of course we can and we should! If we do something well, we should acknowledge it and celebrate it. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, suggests we should praise our children wisely. What we should not do is praise them for their ability or skill (“you are so clever” or “good at chess”) but rather give meaningful and honest feedback about the process that leads to them succeeding.

This means acknowledging the effort that they put into something while also giving them the support they may need to improve. 

Children who are supported in this way manage challenges better, she continues. They can better trust that through practice, putting in effort and applying themselves they can solve new problems. 

Laura Markovitz is a PCI Certified Parent Coach with LLB, Psych (Hon). Visit her website here.

How important is winning in your family? Do you think you push your children too hard? Or do you try to shelter them from losing by not playing down competition? Send your comments, stories or pictures to and we may publish them. 

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