Building Self Esteem in Sport

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Last week we had an elementary school track and field meet at our school.  It was designed to be both participatory and competitive so that all 100 athletes could perform in many events against their own levels.   The coaches all noticed something terrific about our athletes.  On the last turn they all were able to surge through the final 50 meters of the races.     The kids all showed a lot of heart even when they were behind in a race.    It is the surest sign to me that there is a high level of self esteem being built in these young athletes.   When you feel good inside,  you work hard and then kick in another gear at the end of race even when there is pain.    

Now what I have noticed is that self esteem seems to be destroyed in children when the emphasis is placed almost entirely on winning.   When a team gets beat pretty badly or a child loses a race,   spectators and parents have a tendency to feel really embarrassed and then give up on their children.   I have also noticed that when the emphasis is placed on the effort and the learning, then there is a lot more joy and, not surprisingly, much better results.  It seems to me that embarrassment on the part of adults in their children’s performances is a huge factor in lowered self esteem.     There seems to be two responses from adults when they feel embarrassed that affect self esteem.   One of the responses is that they get angry at the coaches or the children and then other is pulling their children out of the experience so that they won’t experience embarrassment.   The goal of the responses is the same, to avoid humiliation.  

Self esteem seems to be built when children are placed in situations where they have to make a lot of effort to improve and learn.   There is nothing more rewarding than  working hard and seeing the improvement.   The role of adults is to keep children participating and encouraging hard work by focusing comments on the effort rather than the result and to not allow children to give up easily.    Contrary to where most people focus,  results do not help a person’s esteem because winning is only a temporary feeling.    What is permanent is learning how to make an effort and also the ability to learn from an experience.   

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Here are a few suggestions for building self esteem.   

1.  Practice observing qualities rather than results.   Look for enthusiasm,  determination, courage,  humility,  openness to learning,  joy,  cooperation, support for self and others.  Acknowledge the qualities by naming them. 

2.  When a child talks about the results as in being sad about losing or showing off about winning,  think of ways where you can focus on qualities.  You can do it in such a way as to invalidate the win or loss talk.  It usually means that before another performance you can focus on qualities.   

3.  Realize that winning and losing are activity specific realities like you can win at soccer but lose badly in spelling.  Qualities such as determination and courage are generalizable.  This means that when you learn determination in sport it can be generalized to every other part of your life because the process is exactly the same.

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