THE BLOG
05/31/2016 06:57 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Is My Kid Playing or Competing?

Okay, I admit that this next topic might make some of you go "ho hum." But, you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't somehow involved in the world of kids' sports.

If you're a parent who is about to have kids enter the world of little league, then it's important for you to know the difference between play and competition. Oh, there is a difference alright. The difference is much like night and day, sugar and spice and any other cliché you might want to use.

How do I know all of this? It's what my PE professor taught us at the University of Maryland more years ago than I care to remember. The one thing that stood out the most in the class is the saying that has motivated me throughout my entire career. Here goes: The great philosopher Plato said, "A child is at its learning best while at play."

He didn't say playing little league sports. He said only the word PLAY.

It's critical that parents understand the significant difference between play and competition. Without knowing the difference, we risk shoving, not pushing, our children and in the process destroying their self-confidence and self-esteem.

How so, you say?

When we set goals for our children we do so from our perspective and rarely from the child's. I've seen dads, who have an early maturing kid who is bigger than the other kids, shove his kid into football because, well, his kid is bigger than the others and looks impressive out on the field. But no one ever asked the kid if he wanted to play football in the first place.

Play covers everything from amusement to exercise to diversion. It is almost anything we do that is just for fun. It provides mental and physical entertainment. If a kid doesn't like football because of rough play, then it isn't a very stress-free experience for him or her. And when a parent sees that the child isn't playing up to their expectations then it definitely isn't a very stress-free environment.

So guess who catches the brunt of this frustration?

Take a moment to explore the meaning of play with these four questions:

(1) When the umpire at a T-ball game says "play ball" are children playing?
(2) When a child is building a sandcastle is she playing?
(3) When your son is standing at the free-throw line of a tied basketball game with two seconds left to play, is he playing?
(4) When your nine-year-old daughter is working the controls of her Nintendo game is she playing?
I contend that an overwhelming number of you would say yes to each of the above questions. But the real answer is that we simply don't know.

For some children, being outside with their friends is play. For others, it just might be that play is being in the heart of heated competition.

The important thing is that if you want to raise healthy, confident children, then it's critical to know the difference. Know the difference by watching other animals roll around and jump, which looks to us like play. What is happening is that they are exercising their muscles, developing agility, coordination and learning the importance of working together.

This is much the same for young children whom we see at the playground running, jumping and climbing in groups or by themselves. Can you imagine a child growing up without this sort of experience?

When we assume that organized sports with its rules, regulations and controlling parents is "play" for children, then we are only fooling ourselves and in the process denying children of the right to simply PLAY.