How to Tell When Competition Gets Unhealthy — Warning Signs

By Alex Perdikis

Extracurricular pursuits are supposed to be all fun and games — until they’re not anymore. That switch can flip in an instant, seemingly without warning. If you’re not looking out for the warning signs of unhealthy competition, you could wind up putting your child at risk without fully realizing it.

Fortunately, recognizing the signs of unhealthy competition is a straightforward matter. These five red flags don’t by themselves prove that your kid is playing in an unhealthy environment, but they should give you pause if and when you see them on the field.

Authority Figures Stress the Importance of Winning

Winning is important, even in the egalitarian world of youth sports. But it’s not the most important thing at this level — not even close. Any coach or league figure who says otherwise is off base, plain and simple. If your child starts to internalize these messages, think long and hard about whether you want them to continue in such an environment.

Individual Performance Is Prized Above Teamwork

Kids play sports to get stronger, faster, better coordinated. They also play to have fun and work together as a team. Individual performance on the field is a crucial component of any team’s success, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of youth sports. Environments that prize individual performance and winning tend to be the most unhealthy, as they allow a handful of star players to monopolize attention and resources.

Insults Go Unchecked

The playing field is no place for bullying. Parents need to watch like hawks for evidence of verbal taunting, as it’s sometimes difficult to tell what kids actually mean when they speak. What sounds like reasonable banter might actually be entirely unacceptable.

Rough Play Is Rewarded

Rough play is another form of unacceptable competition, even in contact leagues that reward tackling and hitting. Referees and coaches have an obligation to interrupt and correct intense physical play, even if no one gets hurt. When the opposite occurs — for instance, when coaches cheer players for making unnecessary contact or berate referees for calling fouls — parents need to take notice.

Parents and Coaches Pressure (or Berate) Referees

Referees are much maligned and sorely underappreciated. While you’re not going to agree with every decision he or she makes, the spirit of healthy competition is predicated on respect for everyone involved in the game, including those charged with enforcing its rules. Watch closely for coaches or fellow parents who make sport of referees, who often aren’t much older than the players themselves.

Addressing Unhealthy Competition

Diagnosing unhealthy competition is the easy part. Actually doing something about it is a fair bit more complicated.

Your approach to unhealthy competition is likely to vary based on what’s actually taking place, the reactions of other parents, and the responses of coaches and referees on the field. Absent clear-cut cases of bullying or imminent physical danger to your child and others, the best course of action may be to wait until the game has ended to consult with other parents, coaches, league officials, and others in positions of authority.

Appropriately, addressing unhealthy competition is likely to be a team effort. If your parent cohort reaches a consensus that your children are in fact playing in a toxic environment, you’ll need to show solidarity and present a united front to the league — or, more awkwardly, to the parents or coaches responsible for the unhealthy competitive environment.

Like the children out on the field, you may sustain a few scrapes and bruises along the way. But, as they say in politics, those same children are counting on you to do right by them. Don’t let them down.