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The Upside of Youth Sports Competition (Spoiler ALERT: it’s not the trophies)

*This is a topic that reaches well beyond the world of Irish Dance so it speaks to generic youth competitive sports/athletic endeavors.

Competing in youth sports definitely has some upsides and downsides, and with the rising cost of competition in any sport and some of the toxic sports culture out there, you can start to wonder as a parent if it is worth it. But I’m here to argue that there are healthy, and almost critical, upsides to youth competition in the mental and social space that needs a little more prime time.

Anxiety and Stress Management skills

I bet this wasn’t the top reason you expected to see, but for a generation that was hit hard with anxiety and an absence of opportunities to practice stress management skills because of the pandemic, sports competitions offer a low-stakes chance to “feel the pressure” and learn to cope. Many children today face some level of anxiety, or “nerves”, around the thought of putting themselves out there and being judged/graded against others, and the opportunity to learn to face those emotions head on in a healthy and supported way is critical. It gives them a chance to practice coping skills like visualization, positive self-talk, controlling what you can control, and separation of identity from actions. It also teaches that anxiety can be reduced with our next benefit – preparation.

The power of preparation – building habits of excellence

While reducing anxiety and learning to manage unhealthy stress is important, there is a biological purpose behind stress in that it stimulates the mind and body. Healthy stress, or anticipation and excitement about an upcoming competitive event, can help athletes work harder in the lead up. For many children who are not intrinsically motivated, the e

xtrinsic motivation of wanting to do well during a competition gives them a boost of drive and hard work that they may struggle to find within. Extra practice, more focus on peripherals like nutrition, skills focus, stretching and recovery, and a general “dialing in” in the lead up to the day are fantastic side benefits of the actual competitive event. Competition offers a measuring stick for progress; it's easy sometimes to not see the small improvements and to not appreciate the results that hard work is producing, but competition and movement up the tiers of a competitive structure are concrete ways for any athlete to see their own improvement and an opportunity for pride. Learning to see a stressful event, like competition, as an opportunity to showcase and test their work is a healthy way to transition from anxiety to excitement – both technically biological stress responses. This in and of itself is a valuable lesson; learning how to work hard and prepare so that in the moment you can have fun and gain a sense of satisfaction from a job well done. And of course, the inverse is true – underpreparing can increase anxiety, which becomes a deterrent for not putting in the work. Thus, a meaningful feedback loop is created for hard work that can help create habits of excellence at an early age.

How to win and how to lose

Children take great pride in seeing their hard work manifest in a winning experience (because who doesn’t like a trophy?) but learning to win gracefully means understanding that although it is often a product of hard work, it is a reflection of skills shown on the day, not a reflection of the PERSON. Inversely, understanding that losing is also not a personal reflection or representation of “whole of athlete” is important. Separating identity and self-worth from the win or loss is critical for a healthy approach to a lifetime of competition (whether it be in sports, the workplace or any other social setting where there is seen to be a “winner” and “loser”). Disappointment or pride are natural emotions to feel related to a result, but it is key to ensure that “I won that event” is different from “I am a winner” to ensure that “I lost that event” is not equated to “I am a loser”. This mental state is

critical to learn at a young age and is the responsibility of coaches and parents to help cultivate. Life is going to hand them failures along the way and understanding that a loss is not an indication or a judgement pass on who they are or their identity, but rather taking that failure as an opportunity to learn how to improve is a healthy mental skill. And beyond the internal mental state, learning to win and lose in a healthy way has immense social importance. Being able to take a moment to be sad that a result wasn't what they were looking for but then turn around and congratulate teammates or opponents who did achieve their goals is powerful. Supporting others regardless of win or loss teaches social skills such as communication, empathy, and respect for others, contributing to their ability to form positive relationships. This reinforces and strengthens social bonds as it allows groups to create supportive team identities around each other and, when done well, competition amongst friends/peers can be an opportunity to create and strengthen team dynamics.

Above all, sports competitions offer youth a chance to have fun, enjoy themselves, and experience the joy of friendly competition and camaraderie. It's important for parents, coaches, and educators to create a positive and supportive environment that emphasizes the developmental benefits of sports competition while also prioritizing sportsmanship, habits of excellence, and mental health.

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