Something Better Than Being “Competitive”

Some dads want to teach their kids to just “have fun out there” when they play sports. Other dads try to teach their kids to be winners. These two camps are often pitted against each other in cultural discussions. You just want to give everybody a trophy! You’re pushing them too hard. Both are convinced that the other side is teaching them the wrong lesson. One that competition doesn’t matter. The other that competition is the only thing that matters. 

Like so many of our cultural flashpoints, both are wrong and missing the point. Dads these days would be better off ignoring them entirely. Instead they should listen to the lesson that the great John Wooden—a real winner—got from his father:

“Dad’s message about basketball—and life—was this: ‘Johnny, don’t try to be better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be. You have control over that. The other you don’t.’ It was simple advice: work hard, very hard, at those things I can control and don’t lose sleep over the rest of it.”

As you put your kid out there in soccer or on the debate team, as you talk to them about their class rank or their mile time, make sure that you are letting them know that how they compare to other people is far less important than how they measure up against their own potential. Somebody who gives their best effort at everything they do is going to go much further in life (and have a happier one) than somebody who is obsessed with competition. While there is also a place for “just having fun,” kids need to be taught that a life of messing around and being afraid to earnestly try usually doesn’t end up being particularly fun. 

But the best part about trying to be the best you can be is what John Wooden’s father pointed out. It’s something you control. A competitive person is miserable on a bad team. But a person who is focused on getting better every day will at least have an outlet for those frustrations—at least they’ll have room to make some progress. 

So forget the cliche debate and the “back in my day” talking points. Tell your kid to try their best and measure them against their own potential and their own progress. That’s what winners do.

P.S. This was originally sent on Sep 19 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Dad’s email and get our popular 11 page eBook, “20 Things Great Dads Do Everyday.”

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