Remember, Competition Is Tough On A Kid

By Paul Peavy

I was watching a college basketball game on TV about a month ago. A few extra curricular elbows and shoves were getting thrown around when the commentator said, “They need to remember that this is just a game.”

Obviously, something has stuck with me about that simple statement with me for over a month. Perhaps it is because it was such a juxtaposition to what I believe about my own participation in sports as a youngster, and what I see adolescents going through in their participation in sports.  Let me lay it out like this —

When I play Ultimate Frisbee with the students at FSU, it’s just a game.

When I play a pick up game of basketball at the gym, it’s just a game.

When I play in a city league softball game, it’s just a game.

Even when I compete in an Ironman triathlon, it’s just a game. (Perhaps that is why I scored a lay-up in a kid’s driveway basketball game that was on the course at mile 131 of Ironman Florida.)

You see, none of those things have a whole lot to do with my total identity. They are not the reason I believe I was put here on this earth.

But I knew that to those college basketball players on scholarship at a major university that this was way more than a game. Nope, this was a huge part of their identity. It may be the biggest part of developing who they are now and who they are going to be.

I think the key is to look at these athletes and our own adolescent athletes in the sense of adolescent development during the course of history.

Adolescence did not exist 100 years ago. When you were old enough, your work on the family farm or the family business simply grew more and more until that became your identity. Perhaps the GI Bill after World War II became the biggest thing to change that when it allowed all those soldiers coming home from the war to broaden their horizons from the family farm and onto higher education.

Culturally, the emphasis on higher education has broadened the range of adolescence greatly. In China in 1980, half of the 16-year-olds were employed. As continuing education became more heavily emphasized, this number was cut in half by 1990. So what does all this talk about adolescence have to do with your sporting event?

As a therapist who works with many adolescents, it is so interesting to see the desperate search for identity and the many (often dangerous) avenues it can take. A sense of identity is a huge draw for gang life, drug cultures, and many other “dark” adventures kid take on.

One of the many reasons adults don’t take their kids’ athletics seriously is that they don’t understand that the child’s search for identity may have become grounded, pounded and surrounded within their own sports’ culture.

Think of the number of hours spent in practice with the same kids and coaches over and over again. Then think about how no one other than teammates really understand the straining of training that your kid has gone through at school.

Now you let that pressure build into a once-a-month, once-a-quarter or twice-a-year performance test known as a tournament or a meet, and  you start to see why your sweet little angel may become the Tasmanian Devil around tournament or meet time.

I am not at all saying it is OK for your adolescent athlete to become rude and obnoxious around a competition. Rather, I am saying it may be one of life’s great teaching moments on how to deal with frustrations, pressures, poor decisions by those who are in authority, etc.

It might be good for you as a parent to start a conversation with your adolescent a day or two before the tournament using the following phrases:

“I know this meet means a lot to you, how are you feeling?”

“At the last meet things didn’t go so well. Let’s talk about a safety plan for what to do if things start to build up, like walking to the parking lot, etc.

“I’m proud of how hard you’ve worked.”

Adolescence is a pressure-packed time where every moment may feel like the ONLY moment in a kid’s life. Sports participation allows a kid to build a positive identity and develop skills such as a good work ethic, habits, organization, creative problem solving, and, yes, even anger management.

Trust me, from what I’ve seen on the streets, I’m happy to have my adolescent develop part of her identity from a sporting event rather than many of the other options out there.

Paul Peavy,, is an experienced licensed mental health therapist, sports participant, sport parent and all-around funny guy who uses humor to share his message. Contact Paul at