Why Boys are Hypercompetitive (and What To Do About It)

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Do you have a hypercompetitive son? One who simply has to win at all costs, who goes all out, all the time?

Photo by John Mayer via Flickr

You’re not alone. A BuildingBoys reader recently wrote:

My son is 10 and he and friends play like they are going to the Olympics every time. I don’t want them to be less than they are but I discussed ‘playing to your audience,’ meaning, you don’t have to go ‘all out’ every single game and you can still win. I gave the example, if I were as strong as the Incredible Hulk and I was arm wrestling you, I know I could beat you, so I wouldn’t go into ‘hulk mode’ and slam your arm to the table in the first second. But if I’m arm wrestling grandpop. who is strong — then yeah, I would go all out.

My concern is that the boys get into lots of arguments and fights, and it’s because of this hypercompetitive nature. My son says, ‘oh, so i’m supposed to let everyone beat me,’ and I’m like, no — you can still show that you have the skills without being so extreme. Even in board games and sports, they are yelling ‘in your face” and talking trash.

Help! I’d love to see how other parents are dealing with this.

First, a word about competition: It is a fact of life for boys. Before I had boys, I thought the old, “My dad is better than your dad” jokes and stories were fiction. Then I drove a group of 6 year old boys on a field trip. Mere minutes into the trip, it became clear that boys do indeed compete, about everything, including whose dad is better, stronger and faster.

Now, whether this drive toward competition is innate — part of being biologically male — or due to socialization that tells males to be strong and dominant, I’m not sure. No one is. In fact, the best guess is that it’s both: partly biological, partly social.

Competition is an extremely important part of boy-world. It’s how boys figure out social hierarchies, and how boys learn about themselves. Boys use competition to challenge themselves and one another. It’s through competition that boys find their limits.

And that brings me back to the issue at hand: how to handle a boy who doesn’t seem to know how (or when) to tone down his efforts.

It doesn’t surprise me that a group of 10-year-old boys is going all out in every form of competition; they are, quite literally, testing their strength and skill with each and every endeavor. They’re still learning how strong they are.  And they’re still learning how to control their bodies and minds, still developing the ability to apply just the right amount of effort to any given task.

For boys, this is a very trial-and-error process. Ever see your kids fighting and just know that it will end in tears? Warning your kids and asking them to stop or tone it down often doesn’t work. The fact is, boys often don’t know they’ve gone too far or too hard until someone is hurt, angry or crying. Then, they back off. The limit has been reached (and breached).

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to reign in your sons’ hypercompetitiveness. and I certainly don’t mean that older, stronger boys should be allowed to hurt others in their pursuit for dominance. What I am saying is that it takes time for boys to develop the ability to match their effort to the problem at hand. Your sons will get it wrong many times before they get it right, and that’s OK.

Here are some tips to help you navigate boys’ hypercompetitiveness:

  1. Resist the urge to interfere if the competition is relatively even and everyone is participating willingly. If your son and a group of friends are playing hard and trash talking — and everyone seems to be having a good time — let them be. On their own, they’ll figure out what’s acceptable and what’s not.
  2. Take steps to protect the vulnerable. If you know that your son is still learning how (and when) to dial back his intensity, exercise caution. If you see him challenging someone who is clearly weaker or less prepared — say, a much-younger sibling — redirect him. Separate him and the sibling.
  3. Challenge him. Help him find worthy opponents. Have your son wrestle (or play chess with) his dad, uncle, grandfather or older cousin. Boys learn a lot about how to manage and control their strength and emotions from older males.
  4. Talk to him. Use everyday examples to talk about how you tailor your effort to the situation. The Incredible Hulk example above is a great, kid-friendly illustration.
  5. Be a good role model. If you trash talk your opponents when you play sports or board games, your kids will too.
  6. Take deep breaths. When your son’s hypercompetitiveness is getting on your nerves, take a deep breath before responding. If you’re playing a game with your son and he can’t tone it down, call a timeout and go to another room. Sometimes, a break is all that’s needed for you and your son to resume play peacefully.

How do YOU handle hypercompetitiveness?

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