Extrinsic Rewards Won’t Sustain a Young Athlete’s Motivation
Some years ago I was at an athletics carnival when a little six-year-old girl, with whom I was familiar, approached me, clutching an ice cream. She had four gold medals dangling around her neck.
“Look what I got!” she proudly exclaimed, her eyes wide.
Looking down at all those medals I gave her a big smile and said: “Wow! That’s fantastic!”
“Yes, I love ice creams!” she replied with an even bigger smile holding the ice cream up so I could get a better look.
She was more proud of her ice cream than the medals.
That moment confirmed to me that winning medals is less important to kids than we think it is and that maybe we need to spend our time focusing on other more potent sources of motivation in children’s sport.
Below are three ways that parents, coaches and sports administrators can lead the way:
1. Understand Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is the motivation or desire to do something based on the enjoyment of the behavior itself rather than relying on or requiring external reinforcement.
Extrinsic motivation is the motivation or desire to perform a certain behavior based on the potential external rewards that may be received as a result. E.g. Medals, trophies, money and other accolades.
Intrinsic motivation is the more powerful of the two types of motivation and far more likely to result in an ongoing and sustained desire to continue with a behaviour.
Caution must be given not to over-emphasize extrinsic rewards such as medals and trophies in children’s sport. Children obviously like receiving medals and trophies, and enjoy winning, but do not see them as the “be-all-and-end-all” – like many adults do. It is quite dangerous to rely on the often fickle and unreliable modes of extrinsic motivation to sustain a behaviour. When the extrinsic reward is not available, what then?
2. Never Bribe Kids To Perform
Medals, trophies, money, gifts, etc, should NEVER be used as “carrots” or bribes to try to get children to perform or be involved in an activity. The result could be kids only wanting to perform if some external reward is being offered; and these rewards won’t always be there. It may also lead to the demand for increasingly bigger external rewards required to maintain their involvement. Although initially well-meaning, this is obviously a totally unsustainable way to fuel a young athlete’s ongoing desire to participate in sport.
3. Avoid Going “Over the Top” with External Rewards
I have no doubt that a number of sporting clubs go “over the top” with trophies, medals and records without realizing the possible negative long-term effect that this may have.
I have seen young kids walk away from carnivals or presentation nights with their arms full of trophies. I have seen kids be awarded trophies almost as big as they are. It’s sad that at such a tender age these young athletes may never win more trophies or achieve a bigger trophy for the rest of their sporting life. They’ve “done it all” before they reach their teens, which does not bode well for ongoing participation.
Many early-maturing kids can be really badly affected by an over-emphasis on lots of early accolades. Initially they may clean-sweep the trophies and break all of the records; until of course their later-maturing counterparts catch up with their growth and development. Maybe if we didn’t make such a big deal about trophies and medals and records, we could avoid the crash-landing that is so often associated with an early-maturer’s sporting experience?
It is far more desirable that children participate in sport for fun, fitness, excitement, to be with friends and to feel good about improving their skills, rather than for the lure of medals or records or pocket money. When adults make too big a deal about the extrinsic rewards associated with sport, we are telling kids that medals, trophies and other accolades are what is important. Let’s teach kids to love the sport experience itself rather than love the trophy. If we really have to give a kid some type of extrinsic reward following a sporting performance, maybe an ice cream will do?
Let me know your thoughts!
Do you agree? What is your experience with intrinsic and extrinsic rewards? What has worked with young athletes you know? I would love to hear what you think. Let me know by leaving a comment/reply or by using the contact details below.
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Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.