How To Behave In Ways That Will Motivate Young Athletes

4 Things You Can Do To Help A Young Athlete’s Motivation

Not all forms of motivation are created equal.

According to Lara Mossman – speaking during the 2019 GO! Chase Excellence in Youth Sports Virtual Think Tank – there are higher quality and lower quality forms of motivation.

Higher Quality Motivation

Higher quality motivation is internally driven. It comes from within the athlete. It is known as being self-determined or autonomous.

Examples include:

  • A child taking part out of interest or pure enjoyment.
  • Sport involvement being part of a child’s identity i.e. “I am an athlete.”
  • A child valuing what they get out of the sport e.g. social benefits, positive health outcomes, etc.

In other words, they really want to do what they are doing.

This type of motivation is helpful for athlete well-being and long-term sport involvement.

Lower Quality Motivation

Lower quality motivation comes from an external source, such as a coach or a parent.

Examples include:

  • Participating for rewards. e.g. Trophies, medals, money, gifts, etc.
  • Participating to avoid punishment. e.g. The withholding of privileges.
  • Participating out of guilt e.g. Not wanting to let a parent or coach down.
  • Participating out of pride e.g. Wanting to “show off” sporting talent despite not otherwise being really interested.

This type of motivation is linked to athlete ill-being, burn-out and drop-out.

4 Ways to Support A Young Athlete’s Autonomy

A young athlete’s motivation will be assisted if coaches and parents act in an autonomy-supportive way. One way to understand this behaviour is to think of it as being in contrast to what would be considered as controlling behaviour, without going as far as being fully permissive.

Four ways to support an athlete’s autonomy include:

1. Provide Choice

Don’t make every miniature decision for a young athlete. Give kids choice, within reason. Request their opinion, ask them for their ideas, allow them to choose several alternatives that you provide.

For example, a coach may ask athletes to choose between two games to conclude a session.

2. Give a Rationale

Give reasons behind your program, exercises, drills, activities, strategies or tactics. Explain what you are doing and why it matters. Include the athletes in your thinking. Don’t just tell kids what to do; explain to them why they are doing it.

3. Acknowledge Feelings

Engage with a young athlete by showing them that you are willing to listen to their perspective and act on it. Treat young athletes as individuals.

If a child feels fearful, frustrated or disappointed show empathy and avoid being dismissive.

4. Allow Opportunities For Independent Work

At times ask athletes what they want to work on and facilitate some independent practice. Encourage athletes to come up with their own strategies for and solutions to situations they are presented with.

Recommended Action

Work on creating an environment for young athletes that positively affects their motivation. This will involve supporting their autonomy and avoiding being over-controlling. Continuously search for ways that you can turn the sports experience over to the kids. I would love to hear what works for you. You can let me know by leaving a reply/comment, or by using the contact details below.

Article Summary

  • There is both higher and lower quality motivation.
  • Higher quality motivation is internally driven
  • Lower quality motivation is externally driven.
  • You can support a young athlete’s motivation by providing choice, giving a rationale, acknowledging an athlete’s feelings, and allowing opportunities for independent work.

Further reading

How To Help Kids Love the Sport More Than the Medals

How to Empower Young Athletes

How to Get Buy-in From Young Athletes By Giving Them a Voice

Get Out of the Kids’ Way on Game Day

If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.

Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.

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