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How do I support my child to maintain a love of sport, regardless of ability?

In this article is a response to the following question, submitted to the Balance is Better team: Help, my boy is not as talented as other players (including his siblings) and he now knows it. How do I help him keep a love of sport?

Below, we discuss how to support young athletes, and maintain their enjoyment at all levels of participation.

Question

Dear Balance is Better team,

I need some parenting advice for sport. Hope you can help as we’re not sure how to best support one of our boys.

We have two boys, 11, 10 and a daughter, 9. Our oldest son is friendly and confident, but not academic or sporty. He has two very capable younger siblings who he compares himself to. All our kids have loved sport, and play lots of different sports for fun. We don’t excel at any one sport. Our family motto with everything (including sport), is “try hard have fun”.

My question concerns my oldest son, Ben*. I am worried he will drop out of team sports. He has tried football, rugby, touch, ripper, and basketball (at least a season of each). He’s often (speaking honestly here), the worst on the team. But he always is at practice and games, and loves being part of a team.

He is now old enough that he notices his performance versus others and feels down about it sometimes. We try to focus on what he can do well at (e.g. being in the right position, being ready in support, being ready to defend), as opposed to those things many other kids focus on when playing sport (like scoring a try).

Our main goal for him is he keeps his happiness and confidence – and that he keeps up his love of sport.

We have wondered recently if he would be better focusing on individual sports (recently we have tried rock climbing / surfing / surf club etc).

Any advice would be gratefully accepted.

Cheers Paul*

Answer

Hi Paul,

Great question. Based on the question you ask it sounds like you are bringing the right lenses to be great sports parents.

From my reading, there are a few things to unpack here.

The question of team sport versus individual sport, and their different benefits (and challenges), and how that can impact your child’s development

You state that you are worried that your child will drop out of “team sport”. It would be interesting to know if your worry is about your son dropping out of sport altogether or dropping away from team sports.

If it’s about dropping out of team sport, well as you are likely aware, team sports can provide great learning environments for children to develop numerous skills, including things like social acuity and character (teamwork, leadership, communicating, resilience, etc) that will also benefit them in their life beyond sport. 

I say ‘can’ because the reality is that often these things don’t just happen by accident, rather they need the adults involved in the experience (especially coaches and parents) to be taking an approach that is conducive to supporting young people to develop these things (much like a good teacher would). To find out more about this, I recommend watching the webinar: Transforming Character Strengths into Productive Results.

Funnily enough, even in individual sports you will often find environments that still allow for social connection, and with the right support from coaches and parents, these sports can still be great environments to support good social and character development in children.

Ultimately, we find that the benefits received by young people participating in a particular sport have less to do with a sport being a team sport versus an individual sport, and more to do with the quality of the experience, which is largely influenced by the support (i.e. how do the adults, such as coaches, parents, administrators, talk to a young person or athlete under their care, consider their feelings, and support their sport experience?).

Children learn and build skills best in environments where they feel safe — where they are free to play, experiment, and try new things without fear of failure. As adults who facilitate these environments — whether we’re a coach or a parent — we must embrace mistakes; prioritise learning, effort, and developing new skills over competition or performance outcomes; encourage active participation, so that every athlete feels involved; talk openly with, and provide emotional support to, our athletes; and foster a sense of fun and enjoyment within our environment so that children feel good when they participate and are excited to come back each time.

To get a better idea of what ‘quality’ means in young people’s sport and physical activity see Sport New Zealand’s Indicators of quality sport and physical activity for young people. 

What does this mean for you?

In terms of the team sport versus individual sport, I would continue to support Ben much like you are currently: let him continue to sample many different sports and activities. There should be no pressure to focus on just one sport or pick his ‘main sport’ right now. The question of team versus individual sports doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether the experience is a quality experience.

All the team sports your mentioned are invasion sports. Perhaps consider other team sports that aren’t invasion sports — for example, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, or orienteering.

The relationship between competence and motivation

Self-Determination Theory is a theory of human motivation and personality that helps psychologists analyse people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs.

It helps us think about what goes into making quality sport experiences by providing a lens to think about how we create a sports environment that supports the participant to be self-motivated and self-driven (i.e. intrinsically motivated).

Ultimately, positive sport environments are conducive to supporting young people to have high intrinsic motivation for doing that activity. That is, the environment supports young people to want to keep doing the activity because they enjoy the activity itself. They feel good when playing or participating. They are not involved due to other extrinsic motivators (for example, rewards, recognition from parents, coaches or other kids, ore a feeling that competition outcomes might lead to something better).

As a parent or coach, we must be aware: whether our children have ambitions to become high-performance athletes or simply to play, stay active, meet other kids, and make friends, they need that intrinsic motivation to participate. It’s imperative that they have fun and enjoy participating. And this should be reflected in our coaching, the ways we support our children as parents, and in whatever extra support we provide young athletes along their sporting journeys.

Furthermore, research shows, that high intrinsic motivation equates to an increased likelihood that a young person will continue to be involved in an activity.

Self-Determination Theory states that intrinsic motivation is underpinned by the nurturing of three key psychological needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency.

Watch the video below for a quick introduction to these psychological needs.

One of the key psychological needs identified by Self Determination Theory is competence. There is a direct relationship between our feeling of competence (our feeling of mastery or effectiveness in a task or of specific skills) and our motivation to do and keep doing that task (i.e. play a sport).

So, you would be right to draw a connection between enjoyment and Ben’s feelings regarding his performance verses other children — though I would encourage you to think about this alongside the other key psychological needs of Self Determination Theory.

Autonomy

How much choice does Ben have with these experiences?

Is he involved in choosing the sport(s) he is playing? And do you talk to him about his experiences in sport, and what he wants to do?

Is he given the freedom to express himself and be creative? Does he feel comfortable trying new things within the sport versus, setting his own goals and determining his own actions, rather than feeling like he has to abide by what the coach and others (for example, coaching assistants, parents, and other kids) say?

Relatedness

How much does Ben value the connection he has with others while participating in these sports?

This extends beyond the relationship your child has with his coach to the ones he can develop and maintain with other children and young athletes in his sporting environment. It also relates to whether he feels valued by others — both adults and other kids within the environment.

Here, Relatedness and Competence are closely linked; possessing ideas that our contribution is appreciated by our peers can significantly boost our self-esteem, feelings of competence, and faith in our own skills and ability.

After all, youth sport isn’t just about performance or developing skills; it’s about forming positive social connections.

How to support a young person in sport

It’s important to consider how you and others support each of these psychological needs for your own child in sport. The Good Sports Spine is a useful tool to help you reflect on this. It’s worth remembering that parental support plays a critical role in helping children develop belief in their own physical activity and sporting competence (more on how to go about this below).

Regardless of how you and other adults best support your child, sometimes the coaching environment promotes behaviours that make it seem that performance is all that matters — regardless of what you tell your own child away from the sports field.

Here, two key considerations for parents to think about are:

How focused is the environment on competition outcomes?

For example, to what extent is winning and competition — rather than play, developing skills, feelings of safety, and the forming of positive relationships — a focus of the environment?

Some sports and activities (such as surfing, tramping, and rock climbing) have less of a cultural and systemic focus on competition than other sports (like your traditional team and individual sports). However, parent and coach behaviour can also ‘teach’ these ideas, and encourage environments in which children feel safe, and view positive participation as success in itself.

Does the sport allow appropriate grouping of young people by skill level?

We want children to experience an appropriate level of challenge in their sporting environments; just like in school, kids need to be stretched in order to learn and develop new skills, but they must also be able to experience some success in order to maintain their self-esteem and motivation to participate.

Therefore grouping children by skill level can be an effective way to support their development and boost their overall enjoyment of playing sport.

However, we also need to be mindful that selection processes can be fraught with issues, and remember to consider the context of our sporting environment before initiating tam selections. Factors like the age of the children we’re coaching, their level of ability, their experience and playing age, and, most importantly, why they choose to play sport in the first place should all impact our approach to any selection processes we implement.

We want to encourage children to play sports, not discourage them by separating them from their friends or inadvertently spurring feelings that they have failed or are not good enough.

Notably, selection processes are easier to do well in the larger sports — particularly in the larger regions, as larger pools of participants make it easier to select teams of kids with similar skills and abilities.

In the specific case of Ben, I sense that the most important thing is for him to keep being able to play with his friends.

What is your role in supporting your child’s development and how to best do this?

It sounds like you are taking a great approach already.

With regards to facing challenges and Ben’s own perceptions of his ability, we would encourage you to take a growth mindset approach; talk to Ben about growth mindsets, teach him what they are, and support him and your other children in developing this approach to their own learning and challenges. It won’t just benefit them in sport, but will help your kids to develop skills and excel in school and all other walks of life.

Taking a growth mindset approach is about viewing your (and others’) ability, character, and intelligence as adaptable, and ‘developable’ as opposed to being innate or fixed (a view which, conversely, is attributed to a fixed mindset). Research on mindsets has shown that a person has immensely more positive developmental outcomes — and is therefore more adept and learning and developing skills — when they have a growth mindset.

What does this mean for you?

Put simply, a growth mindset is about moving your kids’ perceptions of their own skills and abilities from one of “I can’t do this” to “I can’t do this yet”.

Failure should be viewed as a learning opportunity. The act of improvement should be celebrated more than the outcome. Achievement and winning should be tied to effort, discipline, and focus. Obstacles should be faced with persistence. Challenges should be embraced, not avoided.

In many respects, building a growth mindset means learning valuable life lessons.

A good starting place for parents (and coaches) is to understand how you can tailor your praise and feedback to best support young people to develop a growth mindset.

UltimatelyI would say that Ben is well positioned to benefit from great parent support. As an administrator in sport, it’s awesome to hear that your main goal for Ben is that “he keeps his happiness and confidence – and keeps up his love of sport”. I would encourage you to keep this at the forefront of your approach to parenting Ben and your other children in their sporting endeavours.

*pseudonyms have been used to preserve confidentiality

Image Source: jesse orrico on Unsplash

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