Keeping children motivated in sports

In the 2005 movie, “Kicking and Screaming,” Will Ferrell (Phil Weston) plays the son of Robert Duvall (Buck Weston), an overly competitive father with a ‘win-at-any-cost’ attitude. Phil is an adult survivor of Buck’s obsession with competition and winning and displays the scars to prove it. As a father and husband confidence and self-belief are totally foreign to Phil; assertiveness is nothing more than a mirage; and he is as lost as one can get in the Bermuda Triangle when it comes to conflict resolution. As the movie unfolds Phil finds himself coaching the bottom placed soccer team in the little league, pitting him against his father who is coaching the top side. It’s at this point that Phil’s character starts to morph into the mirror image of that of his father; only now Phil’s single-minded focus on victory drives him further to that of becoming a merciless autocrat with only one goal in mind: winning by destroying all opposition. Imagine a despot of Little League Soccer; a dictator of sport, wielding any weapon at his disposal in order to achieve victory and feeling fully justified when it comes to the consequences of his actions. That was Phil Weston. And it’s a matter of time before viewers realise that he is repeating the same pattern with his own son as he experienced with his father.

Although the above scenario is from a light-hearted comedy, the underlying theme is all too common in the real world of children’s sport and sadly so. In his column, Mike Penner of the L.A. Times writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the Little League World Series that locking out the adults couldn’t cure.”

This is an indictment of how we as adults relate to our children in sport in terms of the lessons we teach them; how we mould them and basically the often permanent negative imprint we leave with innocent starters in life. Whilst the development of a healthy competitive attitude pays dividends in all spheres of life, the key is the timing and emphasis of competition in the child’s experience of sport. In fact, competition is far down the list of motivational drives when it comes to children and sport. By contrast, competition is at the opposite end of the sports motivational scale for adults. A problem arises when we treat children as mini adults thereby assuming that what works for us as adults will also work for children.

Maureen R. Weiss is currently with the School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota as a Professor and Co-director of the Tucker Centre for Research on Girls and Women in  Sport. Her research has focused on the psychological and social development of children and adolescents through participation in sport and physical activity; specifically self-perceptions, motivation, observational learning, moral development and the influence of significant others (parents, peers, teachers and coaches) on youth participation.

Professor Weiss served as guest author on a Research Digest Paper (Series 3, No. 11; September 2000) as part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In it Professor Weiss highlights what she terms the “Ten Commandments for Maximising Motivation” concerning children in sport. Since normative human development is consistent, these commandments remain relevant over time.

1. Focus on teaching and practicing skills

· Make full use of facilities, equipment and instructors

· Hold back on introducing competitive play

· Variety and fun are crucial elements

2. Modify skills and activities

· Modify space, equipment and rules

· Grow the game / sport with sequential progressions

· Match the activity to the child instead of matching the child to the activity

3. Set realistic expectations for each child

· Always bear in mind that everyone is unique and as a result different children will learn and acquire the same skills at different rates

4. Become an excellent demonstrator

· Repeated use of ‘show and tell’

· Demonstrate repeatedly

· Ensure that children view the demonstrations from a variety of angles

5. Catch children doing things correctly

· Positive instruction i.e. demonstrate and explain what to do as opposed to what not to do

· Compliment and encourage

· Provide optimal challenge as a follow-up

6. Reduce fears of attempting new skills

· Instil an encouraging atmosphere

· Normalise how performance errors are part of the learning process

· Reduce fears of getting hurt – show how you have ensured safety

· Show empathy


· Keep instructions short and simple

· Maximise practice and playing time

8. Be enthusiastic

· Smile, interact and listen

· It’s contagious!

9. Build character

· Always be a role model

· Be aware of and take advantage of teachable moments

10. Allow children to make some choices

· By involving children in the decision-making process they take ownership of their performance

· Ask questions

The majority of children drop out of sport in their early teens and adolescence. Implementing the above principles can certainly go a long way to reversing this trend.

Dr. Patrick Cohn is the president and founder of Peak Performance Sports (Orlando, Florida). He highlights additional strategies that can be employed in order to ensure children’s continued participation in sport through to adulthood.

1. What are the child’s goals?

· Far too often parents and coaches impose their own goals and ambitions onto the child athlete resulting in the child feeling overwhelmed or participating in sport merely to satisfy significant others

2. Use mistakes as learning tools

· Normalise mistakes and temporary failures as part of all areas of life

3. Total encouragement supersedes winning encouragement

· “Make me proud” or “Go out there and win” sends mixed messages to the child

· The child may feel that love and acceptance will be withdrawn if they don’t win or make the adult proud

· Rather tell them to do their best and that you will be proud of them

4. Encourage effort rather than victories

· Emphasise a work ethic of practice and enjoyment

· Be aware of telling the child that they are “great” since this can cause difficulty when the child inevitably encounters adverse circumstances in their chosen sport

5. Children are far more perceptive than we realize

· Beware of comparing the child to superstars or even yourself

· Most children don’t view themselves as superstars or as good as you which can result in them feeling that they will never measure up to your expectations

6. Participate in skill development

· Engage with your child on a fun basis with regard to their sport

· This removes the pressure to perform and to achieve a goal – it’s pure fun

7. Share your stories

· Be careful of telling your children how good you were and how you expect them to build on what you have achieved

· Include your fears, failures and how you overcame them in any stories that you choose to share with your children

Phil Weston’s saving grace is his wife, Barbara (Kate Walsh), who engineers a discussion between Phil and his son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin). As in any movie of this nature, the enlightenment is instantaneous and everyone lives happily ever after. Not only are relationships saved but families remain intact with the suggestion of thriving and developing beyond their stagnant cycles; hence an ultimate ‘feel good’ movie.

But life is not always a feel good movie.

Without a change of attitudinal ingredients, parents and significant others perpetuate a cycle of excessive pressure and unrealistic expectations thereby robbing the child of the true joy of sport and physical activity: fun

An anonymous sports fanatic sums the topic up as follows:

“When all is said and done, it’s not the shots that won the championship that you remember, but the friendships that you made along the way.”

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