Whether you’re a parent or a coach, one of the most important responsibilities and biggest challenges that comes with developing young athletes is helping them learn what it really means to compete. In almost any area of life, elite performers are elite competitors. But despite popular opinion, real competitiveness is more than just wanting to win. If you want to win…well, get in line. So does everyone else. Next level competitiveness – what I call competitive maturity – takes more than that. To reach his or her potential, your young athlete needs to mature physically, mentally, emotionally…and competitively. Here are five lessons that competitive maturity teaches, and if you’re serious about raising champion athletes and people, five lessons you’re responsible for teaching, too.
1) You vs. you. Champions understand that while beating someone else is good and fun and important, their most important opponent is the one in the mirror. They are constantly striving to elevate their own level of performance, raise their own personal standard, and continue to become the best version of themselves – regardless of what anyone else, even someone wearing a different jersey, might be doing. Competitive maturity is less focused on achieving success (being better than someone else) and more focused on chasing excellence (becoming the best you can be). Champions recognize that a full commitment to running their own race, as well as possible every day, is the straightest path to excellence, and that ironically, as a by-product of that pursuit, achieving success usually takes care of itself.
2) Accept adversity. Competitive maturity allows an athlete to accept some of the harsh realities that come with playing the game at a high level. It allows them to accept that challenge, struggle, and even failure will inevitably be part of the experience. That playing the game is really hard, that they aren’t perfect, and that sometimes – despite their best effort – things don’t go the way they want or the way they planned. These aren’t easy truths to accept. Immaturity often creates with it a sense of entitlement – that we deserve to get everything we want or that it should all come easy. This is a naive and foolish perspective. Help your kids understand that as an athlete, the adversity they face isn’t meant to define them. It’s meant to refine them into the kind of person that being their best requires them to be. It’s a necessary part of the experience.
3) Love the pursuit. For the champion athlete, the joy isn’t just in the winning. The joy’s in the playing. They love all of it – paying the price, striving to succeed, and pursuing the prize. The great Pat Summit, known as one of college basketball’s most relentless competitors, said it best. “Winning is fun, sure. But winning is not the point. Wanting to win is the point. Not giving up is the point. Never letting up is the point. Never being satisfied with what you’ve done is the point.” It’s not hard for any of us as parents and coaches to make winning the point. And don’t get me wrong, winning is important. But for champions like Pat Summit, it’s bigger than that. We are responsible for making it bigger than that for our kids, too. Help them find the joy in competing. Help them love the pursuit.
4) The reward is worth the risk. There’s always an element of risk that comes with really, truly competing in any area of life, and your young athlete will have some important questions to answer in the face of competition. “What if I lay it all on the line and come up short? What if my best isn’t good enough? What if I look like a loser or an idiot for even trying?” These are all valid questions, and for many, their fear of failing or looking bad may be enough to keep them from stepping in the arena. But champions have decided that the pursuit of greatness is worth the possibility of failure, and that taking risks will always be a part of life if we really choose to live it. Competitive maturity clarifies that playing it safe usually only leads to regretting what we could’ve, would’ve, or should’ve done. Work on clarifying for your child the important role risk plays in any worthwhile achievement, and on building and developing the kind of courage it takes to become a champion.
5) Everything is a lesson. Competitive maturity allows us to recognize that every experience – good or bad – has something it can teach us. Champions are committed to using whatever happens today to get better for tomorrow. Competitive immaturity diminishes those lessons. Especially when the outcome isn’t what we want or what we expect, immaturity encourages us to avoid the hurt and dismiss that opportunity to learn. The truth, though, is that sometimes the lessons we learn when we didn’t get the outcome we wanted or expected have the most to offer. By taking advantage of them, we put ourselves in the best position to win next time. As a parent or coach, use whatever it is today has to offer, and help your kids learn to do the same.
Plenty of people who say they really want to win are actually competitively pretty immature. They tend to focus more on their opponent than they do on themselves. They naively avoid including adversity as part of the experience. They’re motivated and driven primarily by their fear. They avoid risk and often, regretfully, end up playing it safe. They dismiss or overlook the opportunities today offers to learn, grow, and improve.
As always, the best and most effective way for us to help our kids develop their maturity is for us to develop some maturity ourselves. So as a parent or coach, do what champions do. Chase excellence. Accept adversity. Love the pursuit. Take the risks. And keep learning the lessons that today’s experience provides. Develop your competitive maturity, so you can help your kids develop theirs, too.