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How to Keep Your Young Athlete Motivated

BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY LUKE REYNOLDS

Motivation is key to achievement in life, especially in its more competitive aspects, such as athletics. With motivation, sports are fun, challenging, and intrinsically rewarding. When motivation is low, however, sports can become something you have to do rather than something you want to do, and all of a sudden, sports are no longer as enjoyable as they once were.

Athletes are often perceived to have limitless amounts of drive and motivation, but like everyone else, athletes, too, will see their level of motivation ebb and flow over the course of their sporting careers. 

A particularly turbulent time in the career of athletes is early adolescence, when they pay less attention to their own progress and effort and more to how they compare to others. 

Before entering adolescence, kids cannot distinguish between effort and ability.  They believe that those who give high effort also have high ability. The truth is that those of high ability will outperform those of low ability regardless of the effort. Therefore, when young athletes begin to distinguish between effort and ability, they begin comparing their ability to that of others and focus less on effort. For young athletes, this can be self-defeating because they begin labeling themselves comparatively as “bad” or “less than”.

Parents may see a noticeable downturn in motivation during this phase in an athlete’s career.    So here are a few tips to help stabilize your kid’s motivation:

  1. In the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation, a basic psychological need that influences motivation is competence or the sense that you are able and can improve. You can help build the perceived competence of kids by reminding them of their potential for improvement. Keep advice to a minimum, unless requested, and use language like, “Yes, you are not there yet” or “This is just where you are right now; you’ll keep improving.”
  1. A low level of motivation may make kids want to stop playing a particular sport, and the tendency is for parents to pressure them to stay involved. This may have the opposite of the intended effect and reduce their level of motivation even more. Kids need to feel a high level of autonomy when making decisions if they are going to stay motivated. If they feel forced to stay in a sport or on a team, then motivation will likely keep decreasing. Let them make their own decisions about sports and support their journey. 
  1. Motivation increases when athletes feel connected to their teammates. Therefore, help your kids foster strong relationships with team members by creating situations that encourage bonding experiences. Group activities, outside of practice, are an excellent way to help build strong relationships with team members.   

Motivation, in itself, is complex and differs among individuals.  To help keep your young athlete motivated,  just remember to encourage competence, autonomy, and strong connections.  If you help boost these three qualities in the experience of young athletes, you’ll have an influence on their motivation.

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