In fact, unearned rewards can sometimes be harmful, because artificially inflating a child's self-esteem merely for participation in sport sends the wrong message, warns psychologist Jason Richardson.
"There are plenty of incarcerated felons with an inflated self-view and there are extremely successful people grappling with a more moderate self-concept, so self-esteem alone is not the measure by which we should prepare our children for greatness," says Richardson, a Pan-Am Games gold medalist.
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Richardson isn't alone. Last year, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison returned two participation trophies given to his two sons, awarded not for a specific victory that they'd earned, but simply for being student-athletes.
Anyone can give and get a trophy, but the true value of youth sports is in the occasional tough lessons—and successes—children experience through hard work and merit, says Richardson, author of "It's All BS! We're All Wrong, And You're All Right!"
He offers practical tips parents can share with their kids.
Stop Saying "The Problem is ..." Fill in the Blank
Too many people say the problem is with the coach, the school, the other kids, the equipment, the schedule—and so on. This kind of thinking implies failure because it immediately rules out your child's goals. Instead, say things that rule in positive outcomes, such as, "I/We/You can do this!"
Make Failure a Teachable Moment
Sports can test a kid's emotional fragility. They may want to give up with failure, but that's a terrible lesson. If your child missed a free throw that would've won the team the game, encourage free-throw practice the next day. Better yet, ask them what they are going to do differently next time. Use a coach's staple: remind your child that Michael Jordan was cut by his high school basketball team during his sophomore year. Parents can always reward persistence and effort.
Don't Let Your Child's Ego Run Wild
The flipside of low self-esteem due to failure can be cockiness with success. Children have far less experience keeping the ego in check, so if he orshe is the best athlete in school, they may become arrogant. Try to catch this early; people evolve at different rates. Temper their ego by showing examples of humility, respect and gratitude. Use examples of great athletes who have overcome slumps or adversity.
Show Them How to be a Better Student
It may seem odd that a star quarterback can memorize every detail of a complex playbook, but has trouble with class studies. If he's having trouble with chemistry, for example, place the playbook next to the textbook and show him the parallels of complexity. Don't let him believe he's "just a jock."
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About Jason Richardson, Psy.D., MBA
Dr. Jason Richardson is a psychologist who earned his principles for self-improvement as a world-traveling athlete, doctoral student and student of life. He maintained top-10 status on the professional BMX circuit for most of his 15-year career, retiring with a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games.