, See-Saw principle

The See-Saw Principle for Kids

Does flourishing in life and sport come down to understanding a simple piece of playground equipment?

I came across the see saw principle in the book, “Emotional Agility” by Susan David. I had never heard of it, and yet it made sense especially as it relates to youth sports.


The author uses the example of a World Class gymnast. Her strong core helps her maintain balance…

But to compete at the highest level, she has to keep pushing beyond her comfort zone to attempt increasingly difficult moves. We too need to find the balance between challenge and competence, so we’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed, but excited, enthusiastic  and invigorated by challenges.”

“We too need to find the balance between challenge & competence, so we’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed, but excited, enthusiastic and invigorated by challenges.”

In other words, we’re looking for balance. The right balance. See saw principleBalance

Too often we expect our kids to advance to the next level, or even jump multiple levels without having a strong foundation. This sets them up for failure as they notice all of the things that they don’t know. Others hold their kids back, in hopes of instilling more confidence by having them “play down.” These kids suffer too (though it isn’t as apparent), when they become complacent.

On the see saw, complacent kids are the heavyweights….

They don’t have to think about anything, so they just get right on. They’re not paying attention so when they sit a bit too heavily, they hurt themselves….and guess what? Nobody wants to play with them anymore because they come across as insensitive or lackadaisical.

Overwhelmed kids can be hard workers but if they’re in over their head, they won’t be able to rise to the challenge. That’s why it’s so important to find the right level to play.

Too much of a challenge = feeling lost, giving up, shutting down.

Just right challenge = rising, creativity.


Another study about the seesaw principle notes that distance is also important. Distance is the physical and/or emotional time away from a particular sport. For sports, both physical and emotional distance are easy to achieve by encouraging your kids to take breaks from individual sports instead of playing year-round. There are multiple physical benefits of playing multi sports to your child as well.

Emotionally, taking a break provides distance from social issues, issues self confidence and even negative team dynamics. Now that parents are much vocal on the sidelines, the pressure is on kids to win. The car ride home can be very uncomfortable. Trust me, your kids know they lost. You don’t need to tell them why.

See Saw Principle in Play

How does the see-saw principle work in play?

We mentioned the world-class gymnast who worked on increasingly difficult moves. It’s the same for regular kids everywhere.

  1. Find a sport
  2. Practice & master skills
  3. Find the right challenging situations/growth opportunities

Credit:Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

Competence vs Challenge


Once your child has achieved a certain level of skill, you may have to consider moving him or her out of a particular program. This may because they want to achieve a higher level or because the current program isn’t the right fit. The most important considerations:

  1. Your child’s goals
  2. Is there still room to grow or is your child significantly better
  3. Your child’s attitude toward teammates
  4. Team dynamic
  5. Treatment of your child by coaches and parents
  6. ***Your child’s self-esteem, confidence and anxiety level


We recently discussed playing time and how sometimes kids can get better by playing with kids that are better than them at a particular sport. We received some feedback that we were in fact wrong. We disagree, but we are willing to add one caveat.

In order for a weaker kid (or a smaller group of weaker kids) to play in a more challenging environment, five things that must occur:

1)The weaker child is

  • No more than 1-2 levels “below”
  • Resilient and has confidence in his or her abilities
  • In the range of physical presence

2) The new team:

  • Welcoming – the weaker child is welcomed to the group
  • Has a growth mindset – while the child is “weaker” at the moment, feedback is encouraging and looks toward the future

3) Coaches:

  • Provide feedback in a positive way to encourage pushing boundaries and creative play

4) Parents are supportive of child & team


The see saw principle is a great way to figure out what’s best for your child’s youth sports experience. Look for programs that help develop your child as well as challenge them so that complacency doesn’t occur. If it’s time for a change, consider your child’s personality and goals in order to find the right program. Remember, for most kids youth sports is a way to stay fit, relieve stress and have fun. Always keep that in mind.









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