How to Motivate Your Young Athlete (Without Being That Parent)

How to Motivate Your Young Athlete (Without Being That Parent)
Photo: Viacheslav Nikolaenko, Shutterstock

There’s a reason some youth sports coaches proactively tell parents that “no coaching, just cheering” will be allowed from the sidelines. We’ve all seen — or ahem, been — those overzealous parents yelling instructions across the field. That’s because watching your child play sports can be a fraught experience, especially when — in our minds, at least — they’re simply not trying hard enough.

To be clear, we’re not advocating for putting your kid in a sport they don’t like and riding them to work harder where there is simply no enjoyment or desire on their end. But if you’ve ever watched your once enthusiastic soccer player suddenly begin to wander about the field, eyes to the sky instead of on the game, here are some tips for how to handle it.

Does your kid actually want to play the sport?

The first place to start is by finding out whether they still want to play. Rather than approaching them with a tone of exasperation after a mediocre game, find a calm time to say something like, “I noticed you haven’t been too excited during the past few games. Are you still interested in playing?” If they are, you can then dig deeper.

Try to get to the root of their lack of motivation

If they’re not showing drive or enthusiasm on the field, something deeper may be going on. They may feel discouraged about their skills. Maybe they feel buried under a mountain of pressure to succeed. Maybe they’re not sure where they fit in on the team, or how they can best contribute. Maybe their coach’s style doesn’t click with them. Try asking questions like, “What’s your favourite thing about this sport?” “What’s your least favourite thing?” or “When do you not like playing it?” “What thoughts do you have when you don’t feel like playing?”

Keep in mind — this probing may not work at first. Some kids will clam up and give one-word responses just to make the inquiry stop. If that happens, drop it and try again when they may be in a more responsive mood.

Encourage and praise their efforts

You may or may not be able to get honest answers from your child about their inner thoughts and feelings on the sport. But one thing you can (and should) do is focus on their strengths and encourage their effort, even if you perceive it to be minimal at the moment. If a young athlete is not playing their best (and their parent keeps piling on the expectations and critiques), chances are they will internalize the criticism and play even worse.

Instead of harping on what you see them not doing, focus on what they are doing well. Did they support or communicate well with their teammates? Can you tell they tried hard to stay in position, when they’ve struggled with that in the past? Celebrate that. Swallow that need for results and think about their longterm self-esteem. Do we want their memories of childhood sports to be of a parent who was always disappointed in their performance? Or of one who said, “You really ran hard out there today!”

Find something — anything — positive to acknowledge, and make sure you’re acknowledging their effort above their outcomes.

Take an honest look inward

Though we are ostensibly talking about our kids’ sporting behaviour (and perceived lack of effort), what’s also in play is our own expectations. When we’re frustrated, it’s worthwhile to engage in self-evaluation. What are our expectations and are they based in what we want, or what our child wants? Are they realistic? Why are we so bothered by their performance? What does how they play say about us?

We need to be honest and make a concerted effort to keep what we want for ourselves out of our child’s sports-playing experience.

Be available, not pushy

While it’s fine to offer extra training, don’t push it on them or say this is what they “need to get better.” Frankly, they may not want to get better. For anyone to improve in a sport, they have to want to improve. If they want to practice in the backyard, do it. If they want more training, research how you can provide that. But making them practice at home or do extra skills development can easily backfire. Follow your child’s lead and be available for what they show interest in.

Practice acceptance

When you’ve cycled through all of the above, sometimes the only path left is to release the gas pedal and accept how and why your child wants to play the sport. Are they there for fun? Friendship? Exercise and endorphins? Great. As hard as it may be, accept their intentions and ambitions without pushing your own onto them.

  

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