Money talks when it comes to motivating kids to participate sport, but possibly not in the way you think. If you have ever rewarded your children, for example, by offering money for them to score goals, you may be driving them to dropout in the longer term. To understand why, we need to take a look at the science of motivation.
A growing body of research is showing that it is not so much the quantity of motivation that matters, but rather the quality of motivation. In other words, not all motivation is equal, and some types are better for our well being than others.
The highest quality form of motivation is known as the enjoyment/interest flavour. Children who are predominantly motivated by this flavour play their sport because they love it so much or find it really stimulating. They don’t need anyone to motivate them to play; try stopping them! They are the soccer players who dribble the ball all around the house when they are getting ready for school in the morning, or the swimmers who spend their time in the bath seeing how long they can hold their breath underwater. They are curious about every aspect of their sport and their development feels like an adventure.
The identity and value flavours of motivation are the next highest quality types of motivation. Children predominant in these types of motivation play because their sport feels like part of their identity or because they feel it’s important to play. They might participate because they value learning new skills. These players do not need the adults in their lives to motivate them, they are focused on their sport.
All of these forms of motivation are known as autonomous motivation because in each instance the child feels self-driven to participate, not driven by external pressures such as pleasing a parent. When children mostly experience autonomous motivation, they are likely to invest more effort in their sport, perform better, be more persistent, have higher wellbeing, and have fewer symptoms of burnout. These types of motivation are in contrast to controlled motivation, where, over-time children are more likely to have low wellbeing and high illbeing, such as burnout. There are two types of more controlled motivations.
The guilt/pride flavour is one type of controlled motivation. Children predominant in this type of motivation, participate in their sport to avoid feelings of guilt, perhaps associated with letting a parent or coach down. Alternatively, they might participate to seek the feeling of pride because they thrive on showing off their skills relative to others.
The last type of controlled motivation is the reward/punishment flavour. Children who are mostly motivated by this flavour participate for tangible rewards such as money for scoring goals, treats after games, or the promise of the latest boots born by their sporting heroes. Alternatively, they can play to avoid punishments, such as not being allowed to hang out with friends or play on their devices. Often parents use these strategies out of the best intentions, thinking they are helping to motivate their children, but motivating young people in this way can come at a heavy cost.
These controlled forms of motivation are considered lower quality forms of motivation. In the long-run they create a sporting experience for children that can lead to dropout and burnout. The adults in children’s lives, including parents, play a role in influencing the flavours of motivation that children have for their sport. The way parents behave can help children to sustain their higher quality autonomous motivation, or conversely, over time undermine this motivation turning it into lower quality, controlled motivation.
Below are ten tips to help sustain higher quality motivation and avoid making your child’s youth sport experience a controlling one.
Avoid rewarding your child with money or gifts for performance, such as scoring goals or winning races. Rewards can undermine higher quality motivation. Overtime, this motivational strategy can lead to children of all ages falling out of love with their sport. Instead, when your child heads off to compete try saying, “have fun,” or “enjoy the game,” to help maintain a focus on what is gratifying about the game.Never punish your child for poor performance, such as withholding attention from them, refusing to speak to them, confiscating their devices, or refusing to give them lifts home. If your child brings up a poor performance, you can ask them what they’ve learnt from the game and if there is anything they’d like to work on for next time. You can also encourage persistence through set-backs.
Watch your actions. If you feel angry during games, your visible anger can be intimidating, off-putting and it can ruin your child’s enjoyment. Try to imagine how you would feel if adults you respected came into your workplace and started shouting at you and the people around you. How well do you think you would be able to focus on the task at hand? Visible signs that you might not be in control of your anger on the sidelines are when you start muttering angry comments; looking away from the field in disgust; leaping up out of your seat in annoyance; yelling comments at the players, coaches, and match officials; and walking irritably towards the pitch. Parents have been known to be ‘banned’ by their own children from watching games because of such behaviour. If you catch yourself doing these things, adopt some strategies to calm yourself down. Aim to interact positively with athletes from both teams, coaches, and match officials.
Avoid standing around watching your child during training. Would you have liked it if your parents had stood watching over you during your classes when you were at school? Then proceeded to comment on your mistakes all the way home? Imagine the pressure! Do you think you would have enjoyed school more if your parents had done that for you? Just like a classroom, a sports field is one of your child’s learning environments; a space where they develop a multitude of skills. Instead of watching their every move, if you have spare time while your child trains, help to build a vibrant club community by volunteering in the canteen, assisting with small maintenance jobs, or joining a committee.
Avoid making your child feel guilty for letting you, the team, or the coach down. Statements such as, “I didn’t get these opportunities when I was a kid!” and, “If I had half your talent, I wouldn’t have wasted it!” are controlling. If your child talks to you about dropping out, don’t put pressure on them to continue. Instead help to provide them with options, such as alternative physical activities. Children can, and do, return to sports they have been given the opportunity to have a break from. Indeed, research has pointed to early specialisation being linked to higher risks of negative physical and mental health consequences, so variety has its advantages.
Avoid comparing your child to other children, such as saying, “You have a better technique than Jack,” as these types of statements can lead your child to see their worth as being dependant on how they perform relative to others. Your child cannot control other people’s performance. Overtime, these types of comparisons can lead children to stop taking on new challenges or to give up when others they view as less talented start to out-perform them. It’s preferable to encourage your child to keep an eye on their own development, such as reaching their own goals and achieving personal bests, things that are more within their own control.
Limit the amount of feedback you give to your child on how you think they should improve. This adds pressure, especially when your advice contradicts the coach, causing your child to become confused and possibly anxious. Your child is likely to want to please both you and their coach. Mixed messages will leave them feeling that they are never good enough. Instead, encourage your child to listen to the coach and learn from the feedback they receive. Avoid undermining the coach by saying things like, ‘your coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about’. If you don’t like the coaching your child is receiving, speak directly to the coach or do your research and find a coach you think would suit your requirements more. Avoid putting your child in the middle.
Instead of giving feedback, try inviting your child to share their thoughts. Ask them if they enjoyed their match and what were the highlights for them. Say things like, “what was your favourite passage of play in the game?” and “How did you manage to get around that fast player on the opposition?”. Let them talk more than you after the game. There is no need to commentate on what your child did wrong whilst competing (just like you, they usually know when they’ve made a mistake).
Focus on the process not the outcome. Don’t say, “that was a terrible loss, the opposition were all over you.” Instead say thing like, “I really enjoyed seeing the effort you put in to practicing your dribbling skills.”
Finally, let your child know that you value good sportsmanship. When you spot good character and good sportsmanship, let them know that you noticed it. You can say things like, “It must have taken courage to go back on court after losing the first two sets,” or “You used great judgment in walking away from the opponent who was trying to push you, rather than reacting.”
This list is by no means exhaustive. Overall, try to dial down the behaviours that motivate children by using reward/punishment or appealing to their guilt/pride, as well as dialling up the behaviours that tap into their own enjoyment/interest, identity and value flavours of motivation. Identifying and modifying your behaviours in such ways has the potential to promote a lifelong love of sport in your child, allowing them to benefit from the psychological and physical health benefits associated with physical activity; a far greater gain than a win on the park at the weekend.