Facilitating healthy competition

by Adam Donyes

“Did you win?”

“How did you play?” 

Athletes are almost always asked these two questions after leaving the field, court or gym after a game. 

Though often well intentioned, these types of questions can have a negative impact not only on children’s sports careers, but their lifelong attitude toward competition. It’s easy to become fixated on the exhilarating wins and devastating losses that influence our feelings toward sports — and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of competition, as long as it’s healthy. Competition can help kids develop character and is often extremely motivating, but it can very easily become unhealthy based on the type of environment and encouragement surrounding it. For parents, it’s worth checking in to ask yourself: What drives my child’s competitive spirit? 

Adam Donyes is the Kanakuk Worldview Kamp Director and Kanakuk Link Year Lions Basketball Coach.

As the basketball coach for the Kanakuk Link Year Lions and the father of two young sports enthusiasts, I have seen firsthand how unhealthy competition can have a lasting effect on a child’s emotional and mental responses to sports, school and even friendship. Competition starts to become toxic when the value we see in ourselves revolves around winning and evaluating personal performance. So, the question becomes: How do I, as a parent, facilitate and encourage healthy competition with my children? 

In my house, we are very intentional in how we convey what we value to our children. We have implemented two specific paradigm shifts to ensure we clearly communicate where we place value in sports.  

The moment an athlete steps off the court, field, arena — you name it — they are often immediately asked, “Did you win?” After years of coaching and parenting, I have replaced this question with, “Did you have fun?” Doing so shifts the value away from the outcome and directs it toward the experience itself, prioritizing enjoyment of the sport over the final score. 

The other question we employ to help our children foster a healthy view of competition is “What was the highlight and lowlight of the game?” This question avoids putting pressure on personal performance and focuses again on the overall experience. 

When we ask our children questions like, “How many points did you get?” or “How did you play?” we subconsciously communicate performance expectations and place value on the individual, rather than the team. As parents, we talk about wanting our children to learn the importance of teamwork, but we often contradict ourselves by focusing our attention on the individual’s performance. Doing so places unhealthy pressure on the child to meet mom and dad’s perceived expectations and adds unnecessary stress to the sports experience. 

Having coached 25 Division 1 basketball players over the past four years, I’m here to affirm that you do not have to average a crazy amount of points per game to earn a scholarship or to be considered an extraordinary athlete. Over time, that kind of pressure can lead to long-term, negative effects on kids’ self-worth. 

At the end of the day, it starts with us. Whether you’re a parent or a coach, it’s extremely important to first evaluate your own sense of competition and ensure you’re viewing it through a lens of health, learning and FUN! Understanding your own competitive spirit will make you more aware of the way you communicate about sports and similar situations with the kids in your life. I know how electrifying it is to see your children performing well and the second-hand disappointment that comes with their defeat — but I urge us all to remember that sports are simply games meant to shape and develop our children’s character.  

For me, if the outcome of the game won’t matter in five years, it’s not worth getting overly emotional and potentially damaging my relationship with one of my athletes or sons. At their best, sports can teach life lessons, spark friendships and create lasting memories. Let’s safeguard the fun in competition by making it a healthy experience that will serve our children well in the years to come.