After studying motivation in youth sports for over thirty years it’s easy for me to see how fortunate my generation was in regards to sports participation. Motivation research overwhelmingly supports the belief that intrinsic motivation is the ultimate form of motivation. Doing something because it’s fun, because you enjoy the activity, to challenge yourself, to complete tasks within the activity, to see improvement in yourself, these all fall under the umbrella of intrinsic motivation. The flipside of intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation, doing something for social recognition, for money, to avoid punishment or disapproval, or just to win a trophy or medal. My friends and I loved the games we played in our neighborhood. Our primary motivational forces were intrinsic.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is one of the most widely studied theories in sport and exercise motivation. The basic concept of SDT is that we are most likely to be intrinsically motivated when three basic psychological needs are met. These are:
· Autonomy: The perception of control we have over a situation. The more we are involved in the decision making process the greater feeling of autonomy.
· Competence: Our perception of our abilities.
· Relatedness: A sense of belonging, to a team, to a group of people who enjoy the same activities, etc.
In that one little block of houses on south Vine where I grew up, our psychological needs for intrinsic motivation were being met most of the time. The kids had complete autonomy in developing their activities and choosing whether to participate or not. We had an uncanny (and unknown) skill for enhancing our feeling of competence. If the activity we developed turned out to be too hard, we modified it to make it more reasonable. If the activity turned out to be too easy, we made it more challenging. We had our own methods for handicapping to make up for various levels of skill among the kids participating. We didn’t have to be told to do these things. Doing these things is what kept the activities fun and challenging. It was just logic.
I will now, finally, get to the point of this post. The children I grew up with had opportunities to play organized sports and we did, a few months of baseball in the spring and summer, a few months of football in the fall and a few months of basketball in the winter. Doors were opened to other sports only after we reached high school. Compare this to my Grandson’s generation where nearly all sports activities are organized and governed by a set of rules dictated by adults. This isn’t a bad thing, but this slide toward organization by adults has eliminated some valuable experiences for our children. Even with that, there are still many, many great things happening in the world of youth sports. Most of these are enhanced by coaches, parents and league organizers who understand the benefits of an intrinsically motivated child.
The evolvement of youth sports into what it is today has created challenges for adults that were largely non-existent just two generations ago. Because a certain amount of structure is necessary for an organization to create a level and fair playing field, a number of decisions that were made by children in “the sandlot days” are now being made by adults. Adults who recognize this will make an effort to include their athletes in the decision making process whenever it is appropriate and when the children are capable of making the decisions logically. Not only will this teach a valuable life skill (the decision making process), but it will increase the children’s perception of autonomy (a basic psychological need).
It’s easy in organized sports for an individual to base their competence on how they compare to other participants. This is a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win a game or a competition, but winning doesn’t give an accurate assessment of competence. Competitions most often include individuals and teams with varying degrees of skill. A greater skilled competitor could win a game while performing poorly. A lesser skilled competitor could lose a game or match while performing at their highest level ever. A good coach will create a motivational climate where success is based on comparison to past performances and current goals. They will help the athlete determine a progressive set of goals, creating small stepping stones to success. This string of small successes creates continual progress which develops a strong feeling of competence and leads to the accomplishment of long-term goals.
More and more of today’s youth are choosing a single sport and focusing on it twelve months a year. This specialization isn’t bad as long as a few things are kept in mind. First, children should be exposed to many different activities at a young age. If they fall in love with one sport and just can’t get enough of it then more time with that sport is a logical step. If this eventually leads to specialization, that’s okay. What’s important is that the child has followed a process of elimination to find the sport they love. The opportunities can be created and presented by adults, but the decisions in the process should be made by the child.
Second, if your child is going to train with one organization twelve months a year, choose an organization with a cooperative style of leadership. One where the child is involved in the decision making to the extent they are capable, one where guidance, communication and education in the sport are core beliefs vs. a dictator style “my way or the highway” belief system. Children don’t learn much from a dictator style coach, except how to follow orders. It’s preferable for your child to be part of an organization that teaches self-discipline (vs. forced discipline), decision making skills (vs. “do what I say”), the process for success (vs. win at any cost), sportsmanship, etc. It sounds clichéd, but you should choose a program where proper life skills are taught alongside sports skills, because LIFE skills (good or bad) last a LIFETIME while sports skills only last as long as the person is participating in the sport.
I’ve used a lot of words here to explain one simple point. Children love to be active. The challenge to all of us adults is to not mess that up. If we can meet that challenge we will have happy, productive kids that reach adulthood with many great life skills and positive leadership models to follow. It’s worth the effort to be that model. Our legacy lives in the people we’ve touched in our lifetime and how those people use what they’ve learned from that relationship.