In Defense of Non-Competitive Sport

Forgoing competition isn't a no-win situation
children play soccer in the summer
Pexels / Kampus Productions

Let’s face it, competition is tough–even cruel. Practiced in a healthy way with skilled, enlightened coaches, the benefits of competition are well-known–the acquisition of social skills and friendships, management of conflict and fears, appreciation of the responsibility of teamwork and commitment, risk-taking and learning one’s limits. But the dark side of the appetite to win can drive kids to unhealthy diets, performance enhancing substances, unsportsmanlike behaviour, and it can do a number on their self-esteem. Competition in sport is one of the few conflicts that is still deemed acceptable–nay, desirable–but not everyone desires it. This leaves those who would enjoy the camaraderie of team-building, skill-acquisition, and physical fitness in a position perceived to be subordinate. Is non-competitive sport just the runner-up to its gold medal-winning sibling?

When I was very young, the only sport I participated in was gymnastics. In those days, parents might only allow you to join a single extra-curricular activity. Two-car families weren’t as common, and there just wasn’t that prevailing culture where you were encouraged to be all things to all pursuits–  musical, athletic, artistic, genius philanthropist with a part-time job and an investment account at 11 years old. Now we are deep into an unexamined custom of producing over-scheduled, over-tired, anxious kids dealing with pressure to excel and accept that this is an ideal pursuit. I digress…but only a little. Back to gymnastics…I loved it and I was good at it. I didn’t need three other activities because it alone kept me very busy with daily practice and competitions on the weekends. It was thrilling to attempt and achieve a new move, perfect an elusive one, and receive praise from my coaches and parents. But I never did embrace the aggressive competitiveness–the feeling that the other gymnasts, even my own teammates, would delight in seeing me fail; that my coaches’ own sense of accomplishment may have been riding more on my ability to beat other clubs than it was resting on their part in my own personal acquisition of skill. So, in middle school, with the growing sense that I could either be a high-calibre gymnast or a regular kid, but not both, I abruptly quit.

Are we having fun yet?

Members of teams, especially winning ones, are often among those with the highest “status” among their peers, leaving others scrambling for popularity and respect in other ways. And becoming good at these activities often entails joining very young, so that by the time some children might have developed an interest in an activity, they are either too far behind to even be considered or are relegated to lesser positions. It can make kids feel left out if they get benched, or discouraged and anxious if they’re mismatched in skill level and expected to compete regardless, not to mention how that can impact fellow team-members who do value the outcome of a game. While some are motivated by such challenges, others may be uninterested in or feel defeated by it, and it may kill their enthusiasm, so it’s important to identify which of those categories your child belongs in.

When my younger daughter played summer soccer for several years, she was lucky enough to have a coach who encouraged the team to compete, but gave them little backlash for being, uh, not at the top of the league heap, let’s say. I watched her team practice not just soccer, but kindness, politeness, and compassion for the opposing team, while still putting in a brave effort to win games. Conversely, I noticed some of the very talented and most oft-winning teams (and their parents, mind you–and that’s another story!) often exhibited a contrasting roughness, rudeness, and unsportsmanlike behaviour. Though they felt the disappointment of each loss, our team rallied quickly and enjoyed the camaraderie, the trips around the province, and chance to make the summer less “boring” as much as, if not more than, the possibility of winning. They just didn’t have that pressure to be the best–so they had fun and chased a ball around.

Kids just wanna have fun

Some kids do want to compete, but all kids want to play. In a 1979 book called Competition, Gary Warner points out that competing requires sacrifices and commitments and compels us to feel the stress of defeat above relishing the fun and satisfaction of a hard-fought game. While these are normal and even useful life tools, he observes that we must also be able to recognize the difference between play and competition. Kids also make a meaningful distinction between fun and winning. In a 2015 study, The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation, researchers listed 81 possible characteristics of fun in sport and winning rated #48 while playing in tournaments rated #63. What rated as the highest component of fun? Trying your best (excuse me while this mother tears up with pride a little). Following that, these are the next top ingredients for fun:

  • When the coach treats a player with respect

  • Getting playing time

  • Playing well as a team

  • Getting along with teammates

  • Being active

John O’Sullivan, founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project, is a prominent speaker on the subject of play in youth sport. In the article “Why Kids Quit Sports,” he cites numerous reasons for attrition:

  • It’s no longer fun

  • Losing ownership of the experience

  • Not getting playing time

  • Fear of making mistakes

  • Feeling disrespected

While none of these factors is precluded by competitive games, it’s worthwhile noting that losing sight of the fun and opting to focus on winning at high cost can be detrimental to participation.

kids doing yoga
© Can Stock Photo / wavebreakmedia

Just for sport

Both of my kids spent the better part of their childhood years in The Dynamo Gym Club. The coach and owner, Craig Budgell, conceived of it as a way to engage and cultivate young children (some as young as 18 months in a parent/tot group!) to learn to love sports and physical activity, no matter their initial (nor even their eventual) skill level. His club is special because, unlike traditional gymnastics, there are no competitions. The focus is mostly on tumbling skills, reducing the need for much of the expensive equipment usually required and allowing him to bring the sport to after-school programs in gyms that don’t have or can’t accommodate it. Students who attain a higher level of skill can be (or not) involved in a demonstration team, and other than that, the year is spent practising for and creating a routine performed for parents and friends at the end of the school year. No matter their ability, each child has a role in the club and participates at an equal rate of activity. It is “...oriented toward fun, the development of confidence and self-esteem in all participants, as well as the learning of skills in a positive manner.” The club’s “Fair Play Coaching Agreement” promises that the coach will:

  • Encourage my athletes and offer constructive criticism.

  • Encourage my athletes to be good sports.

  • Give every participant a chance to play and learn the skills.

  • Remember that my actions speak louder than my words.

And I can personally attest that these are promises consistently kept with patience and humour. Moreover, the club actually “grows” its own assistant coaches, providing kids with an even more unique and valuable opportunity. I asked Craig some questions about his off-beat approach.

What sports did you take part in as a kid?

As a kid I was very active in sports. I played competitively in soccer, hockey, golf and gymnastics. I was also involved in swim team. In school, I played badminton and did a bit of track and field.

How did you personally feel about the competitive aspect of it?

For me I loved it, but I also knew it wasn’t the be-all-end-all in life and I had a much bigger drive in some sports compared to others. However, I wasn’t a person that was prepared to sacrifice one sport for the other. At the end of the day it was also just a game and I had fun doing it.

At what point did you come to the decision to open a gymnastics club that was strictly non-competitive?

This was pretty early. It was after spending time with one of my previous coaches that I realized that gymnastics could be taught at a recreational level and still have individuals succeed in the sport. Gymnastics turned out to be a sport that you could learn and participate in for a long period without ever needing to compete at any point. You could progress at your own level and rate and enjoy the time being in a gym and a program that best suited you. The social side of this for many has been lifelong. Gymnasts were able to be pushed to some pretty high levels without needing to put large numbers of hours in the gym or ever needing to step out on the competitive floor to feel success.

Can you explain how you feel your approach has been a greater benefit to your club members than if you had taken the traditional competitive route?

I have been able to introduce the sport of gymnastics to lots of people who may never have had the opportunity if it relied on them having to travel to a club – we have been able to take the gymnastics to them.

Every year we have gymnasts that graduate out of high school while still actively training. They rarely ever have to worry about things like: are they good enough to continue with the sport? Have they reached their peak potential? Are they good enough to continue competing or is their body going to hold up for one more season?

We are able to have children involved while also allowing them to participate in several other sports as well. Our program just doesn’t demand a large number of hours to feel as though you are learning a sport.

As a coach, I am trained and certified at a pretty high level. In most gyms those highly trained coaches are working mostly with the best athletes. I enjoy using my knowledge to help every single gymnast in the club no matter what the age or skill level. We have had gymnasts fall into many different categories with us. Some just have an interest and want to try the sport. Others may have been very talented and could have possibly been really good competitive gymnasts, but just didn’t have the time to do so or maybe there was a lack of interest in competing. When that happens in some clubs, who coaches them? They have surpassed the expertise of the rec coach in the club, but the competitive coach usually isn’t going to work with them because they aren’t going to compete. So some fall through the cracks. We have had competitive gymnasts that have decided to no longer compete, but still want to train and progress. Who coaches them? For others it may be a financial reason. Some have joined our program to aid in skills for other activities such as dance or cheerleading, or to use the benefits that gymnastics offers like balance, body awareness or special awareness for other sports that may be more of a priority to that individual.

I won’t hold a child back or ever not recommend competitive gymnastics. This is still about what is best for the child. I see it this way: if we coach a child and we have created a burning desire for them to want to compete and increase the hours they train, then we have done something right.

We want our gymnasts, no matter how long they were involved, to look back at their time with us and say they had a positive experience with the sport of gymnastics no matter what skill level they reached. At the end of the day for most, this and most other sports will only be a fraction of their life. It should be a positive one. We call our participants gymnasts, but we are working with people – young children, pre-teens, teens and young adults. We want them to feel successful as a gymnast, but I hope we somehow make them feel successful and confident as a person as well.

kids working out with exercise balls

“I believe love ought to be the primary motivation in all my competition. My main concern in competition should be making me and my opponent better as a result of our interaction. The contest should be joy in this shared fellowship. Sometimes we take ourselves and the playing of games too seriously. The real victory in competition is when I have a love relationship with my opponent and we both are better people after our experience together. Winning or losing? That really becomes irrelevant.”

Gary Warner, Competition

How to find your non-competitive niche

Non-competitive sports and teams still build a practice of cooperation, fellowship and support without the fear of being branded a winner or a loser. For those who just want to play, jump or kick the ball, there are several categories of athletics that can satisfy this need.

  • Try sports that are inherently uncompetitive, such as yoga, hiking, cycling, or inline skating, or only a “little” competitive, like bowling or drop-in badminton.
  • There are activities that are competitive only if one chooses to compete, such as running, swimming, skiing, weight training, or martial arts.
  • Watch for after-school rec and summer programs, games of pick-up, and drop-in sports like basketball, hockey, and soccer. These may have a quality of competitiveness where the stakes aren't so high.
  • Seek out and support coaches like Craig Budgell, who encourage and support all levels of sport and all individual abilities.

It may not be as easy to find recreational leagues and clubs as it is “regular” teams, which abound in schools, and it may be even harder to find these options for kids, as municipal rec departments seem to have a good variety for adults but maybe not as much for youth or very young children, especially in rural areas. It often falls to parents and caregivers to encourage, suggest or organize and even head-up these activities, but this is not all that unusual in these days of educational cut-backs and more and more parent-volunteer coaches. It’s up to these folks to set the structure and tone of teams. If there is enough interest, there may be the option to have both a competitive league and a recreational one.

What is the advantage of sports that effectively eliminate the much-exalted and undeniably beneficial aspect of competition? Does it mean that a child will never learn the lessons that competitiveness affords? Will it mean they are weaker in constitution, less successful in life and/or will not learn the art of winning, losing, or handling disappointment graciously? Consider that there will be many opportunities to gain these lessons in other realms–academics, hobbies and clubs, science fairs, volunteer organizations, and workplaces will deliver the same messages. Competitive sports tie things up in a neat little package, to be sure, but when you realize that your child may not possess the nature to reap the happiness they ought to from participating, they need not be coerced and you need not fret that they will be deprived of integrity, courage, or grit. Offering a diversity of options where kids feel in control of the choices they make based on their nature and interest is far more likely to produce a person who can manage adversity with skill and integrity, than buying into or enforcing a worldview where only activities that have winners and losers build good character.