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THE PROS AND CONS OF YOUTH COMPETITIONS

From showing heifers and steers to playing basketball and running for a 4-H or FFA office, country kids and their families are thick in the middle of competition. So how does a family keep a healthy perspective about it and what are youth competitions really about, anyway?

by: Sharla Ishmael

Will they or won't they? How far do you take it? Do you ever let them quit something? How do you encourage them to be the best at what they like doing, nurture a passion for something, but still live a balanced, “normal” (whatever that is) lifestyle?

These are questions my husband and I already find ourselves asking – about a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, mind you, and how involved in some type of competitive activity we want them to be down the road if they have an interest in it. Of course the fact that we're even asking these questions before they've mastered the fine art of toilet-training is probably telling.

But you hear the stories. From the predicable headlines about parents physically fighting each other (though now sometimes to death), over their kids' sports events, to crazy reports about a parent shooting a football coach to the cruel tale of a coach paying one player to “accidentally” hurt a disabled player so he wouldn't be forced to play the child … we are somewhat wary.

And even in the arena of youth livestock events, the win-at-all costs attitude among the parental set seems, to this old showman, somehow more widespread than before. While one part of me knows these animal-loving little kids of ours would take to showing (anything friendly with four legs) like a duck to water, another part of me wants to protect them from what can be a cut-throat environment that requires one to grow a very thick skin to deal with it and at quite a young age, too.

But does it really have to be that way – can kids today successfully compete in an arena or run for an office or play ball without paying too high of a personal price? Put another way, can a family maintain a healthy perspective about the kids' competitive events AND motivate their children to strive for excellence? Or is that not even the point of it all….

What's it all about?

Dr. Christopher Thurber is board-certified clinical psychologist and father who has worked at summer camps for 25 years and written a handbook for new campers and their families. You might have seen him talking about youth development on national morning news shows or read about him in a number of national consumer magazines.

In his article, “Healthy Competition – It's Not an Oxymoron,” at www.mysummercamps.com, Thurber writes that he is often asked whether competition is good or bad for kids. The article points out there are some unhealthy situations –coaches berating kids or spectators/parents scolding mistakes from the sidelines, for example – that result in a child who is overly anxious and eventually becomes uninterested.

Yet despite the potential for mistreatment, Thurber insists that doing away with competition would also eliminate the opportunities kids have to learn things from it like humility and grace. In other words, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

He writes, “Although some believe that healthy competition is actually a contradiction in terms, I have a different perspective. The unhealthy competition I've witnessed is ubiquitous: focused exclusively on rewards or punishments, belligerent, rude, critical and unfair.”

On the other hand, Thurber describes his view of healthy behavior as “cooperative” competition. “This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but when competition creates just a little anxiety, demands fair play and emphasizes fun, children's performance can be enhanced and they learn to make moral decisions independent of adult caregivers.”

His vision of cooperative competition includes: praising effort, not outcomes; focusing on strengths; having fun but not at the expense of others; engaging kids in discussions about their own behavior; and emphasizing teamwork. But Thurber writes the cornerstone of healthy competition is – ta da – how adults frame the game or event.

Interestingly, Thurber has experimented with different ways to play musical chairs with summer campers that illustrate his point. Rather than having the last player sit out each round, an expert suggested having the whole group try to sit on fewer and fewer chairs, with the idea being that no one would feel like a loser because nobody ever went out of the game.

He reports that this softer version of the old-fashioned game actually results in more injuries than the usual set-up (stubbed toes and pinched fingers). And he writes there is more peer criticism with the group effort than otherwise. His point? No game or activity is inherently healthy nor will it guarantee that some kids won't feel like losers when it's all over.

He explains that it's up to skilled teachers, coaches, staff and parents to make any activity either a constructive experience or a destructive experience for the kids.

Parents' perspectives

Certainly, there are as many ideas about how to best parent/support a child through competition – or not – as there are parents. Some, like Galen and Lori Fink of Manhattan, Kan., have literally put the ball in the child's own hands to learn by doing.

For example, since she was about 10 years old, their daughter Megan has been expected her to do all of her own fitting. Now 15, Megan has learned to clip her Angus and Charolais cattle well enough to win Reserve Grand Champion Female at the 2005 Charolais Junior National.

“Sometimes you go to the shows and professional fitters are fitting the kid's calves. But we just say that's not the way to do it. You're here to learn and do things on your own and make your own decisions. If you screw it up, you screw it up,” explains Galen in a matter-of-fact way.

“Four or five years ago, there were a lot of notches in the cattle's hair,” he says. “But now Megan (and a show buddy) do as good a job clipping them as most people. If we hadn't had them do that to start with, they still wouldn't know how to clip or anything. I think in reality, it does her good to see (the professional fitters) because it makes her a little more determined to go out there and still try to win.”

But in the Fink family, they don't believe winning is everything anyway.

“We've always taken the approach on the cattle that every judge is different ... and then we also encouraged her to do her best at showmanship,” Galen explains. “That way, whether she won or didn't win with the cattle, it wasn't that big of a deal.”

He also believes that losing teaches some valuable lessons. “Only one person is going to win and I think to some degree, kids need to lose some along the way to build a little character. They need to win once in a while, too. But losing some keeps you humble.”

Plus, what they really want their daughter to take away from her competitive experiences are leadership skills, the ability to make her own decisions and to generally be prepared for her future. It seems to be working, too.

Megan has already earned some impressive credentials including: bronze and silver awards from both American-International Junior Charolais Association (AIJCA) and the National Junior Angus Association; director of the Kansas Angus Association, secretary and vice president of her 4-H club and much more.

For her part, Megan says that competition can get ugly or carried away sometimes, but to her it's just about the fun of showing. “To me it seems like there are always those few people that win every time, but they are just showing that they are competitive. I think that showmanship has the most pressure on me because there are so many other kids that are trying to win it … competition is good because it makes you try harder to win.”

A cow for Christmas

When Willa and Charles McCall's son, Adam, was in the seventh grade, he got bit by the show bug and told his parents that he wanted a cow for Christmas. The local ag teacher always had kids showing some Charolais cattle, including one of their son's friends, and Adam wanted one, too.

“We thought that's a little ridiculous; we're not getting you a cow for Christmas!” says Willa in a soft, southern drawl. “He kept on and on, so in March we got him one and that was just the beginning. He loved it from the first time he showed.”

      Of course, it didn't hurt that the first time this Trimble, Tenn., lad showed – at his state field day no less – he won Reserve Grand. Now his proud momma says Adam would probably show every weekend if he could find a place to show.

      And like Ms. Fink, Adam McCall's competitive drive doesn't stop at the arena exit. In addition to 4-H and FFA, his resume includes everything from two county cattleman associations to the Leo Club to student government at the University of Tennessee-Martin to serving as president of the Tennessee Junior Charolais Association and director of the AIJCA and more.

Willa says her son comes by his competitive nature honestly. She was a high school athlete and admits her own competitive streak still runs pretty strong. But life sometimes has a way of tempering things like that. When Charles McCall, a former principal, supports his son at a livestock show, he does so from a wheelchair, the result of a post-operative infection after open-heart surgery a couple of years back.

“He came real close to dying,” says Willa. “You have to keep things in perspective about what's really important. Winning, losing, you're going to do both. Adam understands that. Of course we're happy when he wins, everybody is. But you can't compete that many times in that many things without having some disappointments along with the wins.”

However, when Adam doesn't win, his mother makes a point to go and congratulate the kid who did. As a teacher, Willa says she wants all kids to feel good about themselves and she has seen how good it makes her son feel when somebody else's parent congratulates him. And she says her son has learned to bounce back quickly from disappointment.

While the McCalls encourage their son and support him in whatever he wants to do – the key is Adam has a choice about whether he wants to participate in something or not.

“As an example, this year he has the opportunity to run for a state FFA office,” Willa explains. “He chose not to. His advisor and others thought for years that he would run. But Adam said he'd started to college and if he ran, he would miss going to Junior Nationals, and if he won an office, he would miss some showing.”

Willa says it doesn't matter what the kid wants to do, whether it's golf or 4-H or service clubs. “The best thing is to have the kid involved in something. Being involved they establish a good work ethic, they want to succeed and I think it goes over to their grades in school and everything else.”

The flip side

Of course, for all the wonderful things that youth competition programs can provide – learning how to work hard, set and reach goals, deal with adversity and success, make new friends, develop self-discipline and time management skills, there are those spoilers that zap the fun right out of it, and not just for the kids competing, but the for entire family.

But the real question is – are those spoilers inherent in competition, no matter the sport, or do they come from an outside source? And can or should our youth programs be modified somehow to cut down on the nastiness? (If you doubt that livestock showing is really a sport, you should know that some of us old-timers still have the T-shirt: “Steer Jockeying, America's No. 1 Sport.”)

Seriously, though, parents (and advisors, coaches, etc.) get a lot of the blame for the ills of competition, from the soccer field to the practice pen.

According to a PTA article by Ted Villaire, Competition and Kids: It's Not About Winning, “Kids often quit playing sports because they feel they can't satisfy their own or their parents' expectations…. Kids are more likely to stick with competitive activities and enjoy themselves if they don't have parents pressuring them.”

Some other quotes about parental involvement:

•      “Parents represent the best and darkest sides of sports.” – Richard Card, Spurwink Institute, from Sports Done Right™.

•      “If I had to sum up the crisis in kids' sports, I'd do it in one word – adults.” – J. Duke Albanese, from PARADE Magazine.

•      “One parent can ruin it for all the kids.” – Nate Chantrill, 17, Maine high school football player, from PARADE Magazine.

•      “Parents should stop living their lives through their children. The parents instead should encourage the children to have fun and enjoy the little time they have to be young.” – Derek Jansen and Dennis Runner, Buena Vista University.

Ouch! And I thought everybody was just supposed to blame all their problems on their mother…. Nonetheless, even Fink and McCall acknowledge they've seen less-than-desirable behavior from parents in the numerous activities their kids have been involved with over the years.

McCall says you just have to ignore those kinds of things. Fink says making more rules won't solve anything because there is always somebody willing to break the rules no matter how hard you try to enforce them.

There is a growing movement to reform the culture of youth sports, however. For example, David Oliver Relin in PARADE Magazine writes that the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association in Florida now requires parents to take an online course on appropriate behavior during athletic events after some incidents of violent behavior from parents.     

He also reports Connecticut has a statewide ban on high school athletes simultaneously playing on a private travel team due to concern about the pressure on talented kids to specialize in one sport at such a young age.

The most ambitious program, though, is an initiative from the University of Maine called Sports Done Right™. In a nutshell, the program is promoting to local communities the adoption of seven core principles and a slew of supporting practices that meet a painstakingly crafted definition of healthy competition.

For example, one of the core practices is: “Players (insert exhibitors/members) learn the value of competition without conflict and how to handle success with grace and failure with dignity. The spirit of improvement and excellence replaces a win-at-all-costs mentality.”

It also includes so-called “Out-of-Bounds” items – trends, behaviours, attitudes and policies – that should be eliminated from youth sports in our schools, such as coaches who lack self-control, fans who heckle officials or over-involvement from parents on the sidelines (See Red Flags for Parents, page XX.)

      The Sports Done Right™ report (www.sportsdonerightmaine.org), made public in January of 2005, was funded through Congress, and according to Oliver Relin, educators from 30 other states are considering the Maine model as well. While you may not agree with all the ideas that Sports Done Right™ champions, consider this statement in the report( inserting words like arena or show when appropriate):

      “Regardless of the size of the stadium, the magnitude of the game or the volume of the cheers, it is the attitudes displayed by their communities, their parents and their student peers that constitute the real arenas in which young people play.” Well said.

The final score

Weighing all the pros and cons, in the big picture most people say that one of the goals for competitive youth programs is to help prepare young people for life down the road. As adults, we know that life is not exactly a smooth-sailing adventure. So maybe learning to deal with the negatives isn't all bad.

As former tennis star, television personality and now mother of competitive children, Annabel Croft once explained to the BBC, “I think things have become a bit politically correct when people say that competition isn't healthy and you can't have one person beating another. I think that's a load of rubbish. Life is competitive; whatever you're after in life you're going to be up against people who want the same thing.”

So, Josie and Brooks Ishmael, what's it going to be? Heifers or hogs? Ballet or basketball? Then again, maybe we should just start with graduating from the Huggies® All-Star Team.

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