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Ask the Experts

My Son Has Poor Sportsmanship

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My son is extremely competitive. He wants to win at everything and gets very upset when he loses. What can I do to help him understand that he doesn't always have to win?

Answer:

By middle childhood, children have a strong sense of industry as they attempt to master various skills and develop proficiency in many areas. Competition can be a natural byproduct as children, along with their peers, try new things and push themselves to new heights. Some children seem to thrive in competitive situations, while others simply don't. Adults can help their children learn to compete appropriately by providing ample opportunities for cooperative group play. In these situations, learning to participate along with others will build tolerance, setting the stage for later competitive situations.

Competition can be both good and bad, and a certain amount of maturity is required to handle it. On the one hand, competition can add to the fun of a game; it involves striving to meet goals, working hard and building character as we are motivated to do our best. On the other hand, competition can go too far. When a child's self-esteem suffers or he feels humiliated by a loss, or he becomes hostile and hurtful towards his opponents, then it may be time for adults to step in. Children who are immature or insecure may not be developmentally ready to handle competitive situations.

As you try to figure out what is motivating your son to be so competitive, take a close look at how the adults in his life respond to competitive situations. Our society is extremely achievement focused, and many parents pressure their children at early ages to win and to be the best at all costs. It is not uncommon at school sports events to find coaches and parents berating children, pushing them to extreme levels of competition.

If adults in your son's life are doing this, they may need to back off a little. Your son should try hard so he can feel proud of himself; but if he doesn't win, he needs to accept the loss, learn from his mistakes and have a good attitude about trying again.

Help him learn to balance the satisfaction of playing a game with the aspiration of winning. It may take several conversations, with you pointing out examples when others are too competitive or are out of line. As his parent, it is your responsibility to communicate what is and is not an acceptable response. Use your common sense to decide whether his behavior is extreme.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/9/2010:
"I saw this article & really needed some insight on how to teach my son to accept loss in competitive situations. I didn't really find the article helpful, however....just a 'it is your responsibility to teach' tone. Well, I DO talk to my son about playing fair and being happy for a friend or family member who wins...but it hasn't worked. I need in depth insight and recommendations on how to go about this, because talking to him isn't working. Back to internet searching, I guess."
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