Are competitive sports doing more harm than good to children’s mental health?

April 9, 2018 Published by

Has your school started hosting non-competitive sports days?


If so, they’re not the only ones. In a recent survey, 57 percent of parents with children at primary school say their sports day is non-competitive – yet 86 percent do not agree with this approach.

Some parents and teachers think competition can be potentially harmful to children’s self-esteem and confidence, with not all children possessing great talent in sports. Some parenting experts say that over-competition in sport is problematic for children’s mental health with the risk of less athletic kids feeling rejected or like they have let the team down, and high-achievers developing anxiety about their performance.



We’ve all heard the saying that “it’s the taking part that counts”, but children may be missing out on important life lessons if they don’t get to experience a little friendly competition. While it might not be nice to witness your child’s heart-wrenching reaction to losing a game of football or coming last in a race at sports day, these outcomes are valuable learning opportunities for key skills such as confidence, resilience, behaviour management (e.g. not losing their temper), and empathy.

By feeling what it’s like to succeed, and equally how it feels to fail, children learn to manage these emotions successfully in other walks of life. For example, losing out to a colleague for a promotion in the workplace, or struggling to pass exams for a degree. Children can then recognise that failure is a learning experience and not be scared of it. It also encourages humility, so that when children do win, they can be respectful and empathise with others.



There are many other benefits to competitive sports as well. It promotes a range of skills that are vital for making friends or succeeding in the workplace, including teamwork and leadership, and has even been shown to improve academic performance. And at a time when one-third of children are leaving primary school overweight or obese, competitive sports can motivate children to be less sedentary.

Of course, some skills have competitions in other subjects such as art, drama, music and dance. Children have different interests and talents, and these activities also give them the opportunity to learn to manage negative feelings. One may lose out in music if they are not picked for the orchestra, or in art if their piece is not well received. Learning to deal with criticism and rejection is important whatever the subject.

Schools can cater to a happy medium by recognising that everyone is different; some will have a natural pull towards competition and thrive in that environment, others will not. Constructive competitiveness is key, with the emphasis on participation and enjoyment, as opposed to relentless public failure. Where kids are happy and passionate, they’ll continue to be involved and develop their skills in a positive way.


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This post was written by Sarah Welland

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