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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

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Individual vs team sports: how do I know what’s best for development?

A common issue faced by parents or coaches is when a child becomes disillusioned with their chosen sport. Maybe they’re playing a team sport but have picked up an interest in an individual sport, or vice versa. This may be due to a child feeling like they’re under-performing compared to their teammates, or there may be something in their sporting environment that is having a negative impact on their motivation and development.

Whatever the reason, many adults in this situation worry about a child switching sports, or the type of sport, and what the implications might be for the child. In this blog we will address some of those questions and provide some takeaway ideas that should help.

What are the benefits of team sports versus individual sports, and what different challenges do they present to children?

Team sports can provide great learning environments for young people to develop numerous skills, including things like social acuity and character (team work, leadership, communicating, resilience, etc). 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 this development in young people. Much like a good teacher might.

But even in individual sports you will often find environments that still allow for social connection. And with the right support from coaches and parents, they can still be great environments to support good social and character development in young people.

Ultimately, we find that the benefits received by young people participating in sport has less to do with a sport being a team sport versus an individual sport, and more to do with the quality of the experience. This can largely be underpinned by the support – i.e. how do the adult coaches and parents support the experiences.

To get a better idea of what ‘quality’ means in young people’s sport and physical activity see https://sportnz.org.nz/assets/Uploads/Young-People-Quality-Indicators-FINAL.pdf.

Takeaway 1

It’s important to allow a child to sample many different sports and activities, as this doesn’t matter as much as whether they’re having a quality experience or not.

What is the relationship between competence and motivation?

Self Determination Theory is one of the key psychological theories that we pull on to understand what goes into making a quality sport experiences. It also ultimately sets young people to be motivated so that they want to stay involved in sport. The theory is explained in the video below.

One of the key psychological needs identified by Self Determination Theory is competence. There is a direct relation between our feeling of competence (our feeling of mastery or effectiveness in a task) and our motivation to do and keep doing that task. In this case play sport. This is why there can be a connection between enjoyment and a child’s perception of their performance versus others.  

However, we need to think about this alongside the other key psychological needs of Self Determination Theory: autonomy and relatedness.

  • Autonomy – how much choice does a child have with these experiences? In other words, does he get to pick what sport he wants to do? Does he get given freedom to express himself, be creative, try new things within the sport? Or does he feel like he must abide by what the coach says?
  • Relatedness – how much does a child value the connection she has with others in these sports, such as peers and coaches, and how much does she feel valued by others? This isn’t just about performance but overall social connection.

Takeaway 2

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

Is environment important?

Regardless of how you and other adults best support a child, sometimes the environment propels behaviours that make it seem that performance is all that matters. Here, two key considerations to think about are:

  1. How focused is the environment on competition outcomes (e.g. winning)? Note, some sports and activities (e.g. surfing, tramping, rock climbing) have less of a cultural and systemic focus on competition than other sports (e.g. your tradition team and individual sports), but parent and coach behaviour go a long way to setting up this environment too.
  2. Does the sport allow appropriate grouping of young people by skill level? This becomes easier to do in the larger sports particularly in the larger regions as teams can be selected with similar ability. Obviously, we need to be mindful that selection processes can be fraught with issues as well.

Takeaway 3

Encourage the right environment for development by noticing – and amending if necessary – your own behaviours around outcomes. The most important factor for a child may be to be able to keep playing with their friends, rather than winning.  

How can I best support a child’s development?

When faced with these challenges in a child’s sporting development, it can be helpful to encourage a ‘growth mindset’. Growth mindset is about moving people’s perceptions about their ability from one of “I can’t do this” to “I can’t do this yet“.

You can learn more about encouraging a growth mindset in the following video.

Takeaway 4

Read the following link. It provides a quick overview about how parents and coaches can tailor praise and feedback to best support young people to develop a growth mindset.

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