Teaching Athletes to Compete with Grace

Image by Florian Schmetz

Youth sports sometimes pretends there's no difference between participating in sports and winning... but not swimming. Your swimmer will know when they win, when they come close... and when they don't. For young athletes in particular, swim team might provide their first taste of competitive defeat.

To some, this competitive reality can be demoralizing. But by focusing on an athlete’s effort and development, coaches (and parents) can make the most out of not winning every race.

Redefining what is a win.

Every swim is a race against yourself and the clock. Track your swimmer's times and progress over the season and from year to year. Acknowledge and celebrate when they have personal bests, regardless of how they place in a competition. And when they have an 'off' meet (everyone does), remind, as well as show them how they've gotten faster over time. Shifting the emphasis of competition from “winning” to “improving” will make it easier for young athletes (and parents) to maintain perspective to help them compete with grace.

One method is the "Mastery Approach", developed by University of Washington psychologists Ron Smith, PhD, and Frank Smoll, PhD. This coaching method advocates praising athletes for effort and dedication, not just for winning. The researchers' method "isn't a focus on the outcome of competition, on winning and losing, but on something that occurs during the process of competition—personal effort,".