Olympics, young children and competition

“The more you dream, the farther you get.” – Michael Phelps, Olympic-medal winning swimmer (current)


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As I decadently indulged in watching the Rio Olympics (lazily & horizontally), I marvelled at what I saw: superhuman ability to dig deep, to invite pain and to fearlessly sacrifice. I can’t help but feel torn about the commitment these athletes have made verses the heart wrenching loss when things don’t go their way. Then I’m reminded of a mantra we use at home. We value process over prizes.


It’s always more important to enjoy the experience than to win. Life inevitably throws us disappointment, so we may as well enjoy the ride and become less attached to the destination. No attempt to compete can be made without years of practice, so if you’ve enjoyed the journey, you can always look back at the valuable memories and not just the display cabinet. Therefore athletes who end up in the 4th place (or lower down the ranking) and return home empty handed can still walk tall with pride. They they dared to dream, practiced hard, sacrificed enormously and competed successfully and that is worthy of admiration.


Evidence continuously proves that valuing a process over a prize results in a healthier, and better-adjusted child. Granted, a prize is nice, but is rather a bonus along with all the other benefits that an opportunity to prepare for and part-take in competition at a high level, like getting to know yourself, developing stamina and resilience, learning to make choices and sacrifices, representing your country, earning respect, making new friends, seeing the world, and most importantly, overcoming fear of failure!


At bedtime, even our three-year old prays for strength to be “equanimous and magnanimous” meaning we celebrate equally after a hockey match or a swimming gala irrespective of a podium placing or the number of goals scored. The celebration is for practicing, sacrificing, committing, showing up, taking a risk and taking part. (Especially when you know the competition is strong and the odds are against you).


Children should be exposed to many different activities, as each activity has a different lesson to teach, this won’t be the case if the focus is on winning, activities then become limited, all the fun is lost and children become crippled by fear or exhaustion.


Many top athletes only start competing later in life when their motivation comes from within and they’re not doing it to please anyone else anymore. Evidence shows that “intrinsic motivation” is the most successful source of inspiration and outlives “external motivation”. One is sustainable and the other is not. The only way to instill intrinsic motivation in our children is to allow them to create and chase their own dreams, and to free them from performance pressure (and sometimes our own dreams). How do we do this? Encourage dreaming and role-playing, celebrate the process “I see you enjoy making that picture” (as opposed to “that is a beautiful picture”), making practice fun (instead of only “show day”), talk to them about the hard work you, or someone they know, put into something that they exceed at.


As the superwoman Caroline Wöstmann, winner of the Two Oceans and Comrades 2015, says “for the experience”.