Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Parenting in youth sport

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Parenting in youth sport:
How can parents optimise youth participation, performance, and enjoyment in sport?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Children enjoying sport.

People around the world are attracted to sport for many different reasons. Parents often use youth sport as a vehicle to teach children important life skills as they progress into adulthood. Being a parent is a difficult job. Most parents, particularly when first involved in youth sport, do not possess the knowledge, understanding and skills to effectively support their child whilst navigating the sporting arena (Harwood & Knight, 2015). This chapter identifies reasons parents encourage sport and why children play. It then outlines self-determination theory and achievement goal theory in relation to sport, followed by research on why children leave sport. Culminating with the real-life difficulties faced by parents in sport and how psychological science can provide useful tools to help them navigate their child's sporting journey. Aiding parents in the creation of an environment where children achieve optimal sporting participation, performance and enjoyment.

What do people want from sport?[edit | edit source]

Motivations behind sporting participation differ between parents and children.

Why do parents want their children to play sport?[edit | edit source]

Parents use sport as a vehicle for children to have fun and gain life skills in their development toward adulthood, enabling them to be a positive contributor to society. In today's busy Western world many parents view sport participation as a normal part of everyday life. The sporting environment is a place where children can acquire physical skills, have social relationships, attain leadership qualities and develop moral character. It is also a rich platform for observational learning, development of achievement orientations and self perception (Harwood & Knight, 2015).

Why do kids want to play sport ?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Young people participate in sport for many reasons. Intrinsic motivation is key to enjoyment and continued participation.

Motivation to play sport is multifaceted, with athletes usually having multiple reasons for participation. A recent meta analysis by Bailey, Cope, and Pearce (2013) examined why children play sport. The common factors were:

  • To experience fun and enjoyment, although what constitutes this is personal to each child
  • To learn new physical skills and to feel competent about skills
  • To experience social interaction with friends and peers and make new friends
  • Influence from parents, role modelling or encouragement to participate

Self-determination theory applied to sport[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2017) explains motivation and psychological need satisfaction. It posits that motivation can be characterised on a continuum with intrinsic motivation (IM) at one end and a complete lack of motivation (amotivation) at the other. Picture a child who loves to play sport and another who doesn't recognise why they want to play, so doesn't. SDT postulates that satisfaction of the psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are necessary to ensure IM. Athletes who develop these motivations experience more enjoyment and satisfaction from sport (Amado, Sánchez-Oliva, González-Ponce, Pulido-González, & Sánchez-Miguel, 2015). SDT is an overarching theory with a substantial body of supporting research, although mostly in western society. Its popularity, paradoxically, has led to its greatest criticism, that researchers treat it as perfect and ignore its limitations (Hassman, Keegan, & Piggott, 2017).

What is intrinsic motivation?[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic motivation is the highest form of self regulation and involves carrying out a task purely for the inherent joy or interest it provides (e.g., horseriding for those who love it). It is the reason all young animals and humans play and is the natural basis for human learning. Intrinsically motivated children are engaged, actively seek novelty, strive for optimal challenge and are more likely to perform well and enjoy sport more. When intrinsic motivation is fostered throughout life, it creates vital happy adults who engage, show initiative, process information conceptually, have greater task persistence and overall mental well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

What is extrinsic motivation?[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. A 1st Place ribbon awarded for children's performance is an extrinsic motivator.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite of intrinsic motivation and is the reason we perform many tasks in society and sporting competition. It is the performance of a task to attain a separate reward or outcome. It is easily explained by the "carrot and stick" mentality (Ryan & Deci, 2000). A person completes a task not for the experience of doing it, but to achieve an external outcome they desire. In sport, extrinsic motivators can be playing to win, awards, money, praise and status. Extrinsic motivation is a form of controlled motivation and is associated with lower psychological health (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006).

How do extrinsic motivators affect intrinsic motivation?[edit | edit source]

Many people believe that rewards increase motivation. It seems logical that if you want someone to do something, then you give them some sort of prize to make it worthwhile. This happens every day throughout the world, right? Well, while some extrinsic rewards can have positive effects on behaviour, they almost always come with a hidden cost. That hidden cost is the loss of intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1976).

Yes, believe it or not, extrinsic motivators actually reduce our natural innate desire to perform a behaviour. This has been replicated in real life studies over and over in areas from sport, education and the workplace. It gets worse! Extrinsic rewards limit our ability to learn. This is because, when rewards are available, people generally short cut the system to take advantage of the reward, and in doing so lose conceptual focus and meaning (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Listen to Ed Deci one of the researchers responsible for SDT explain why here.

Intrinsically motivated children are more likely to perform well and enjoy sport more. When intrinsic motivation is fostered throughout life, it creates vital happy adults who engage, show initiative, process information conceptually, have greater task persistence and overall mental well-being.

Psychological needs[edit | edit source]

Autonomy is the psychological need to initiate and regulate our own behaviour and to perceive that we have choices. It is the psychological need to feel as if what we choose is of our own volition and that our actions are our own. To engage autonomy, young athletes need opportunities to experience problem solving and decision making about their own self. Benefits of autonomy in a sporting environment are improved performance, enhanced conceptual understanding, task engagement, feelings of responsibility, improved self-worth and overall psychological well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000). When children perceive their parents are autonomy supportive they have enhanced intrinsic motivation (Jõesaar, Hein, & Hagger, 2012).

Competence is the psychological need to feel effective and achieve desired outcomes. It is a feeling of growth and flourishing from skills learnt over time (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is the psychological need that encourages children to seek challenge, think strategically and be persistent. The difficulty of the challenge is also important. The most effective amount for maximum enjoyment is optimal challenge, not so difficult the child thinks they are unable to manage, but difficult enough they have to work hard (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). 

Feedback from others is influential on feelings of competence. Positive feedback grows competency, increasing intrinsic motivation whilst negative feedback does the opposite. Sport offers the perfect vehicle for young people to experience, make mistakes, find joy in learning and create mastery (Vallerand & Reid,1984).

Relatedness is the psychological need to care about and be cared for, the natural human inclination to form social relationships. Connection to others that value and accept who we are is essential for psychological health. Relatedness occurs in a sporting environment when quality peer, coach and parental relationships are available (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Goal orientation[edit | edit source]

Like any theory, SDT has limits to its value and this is found in its explanation of goals for sporting applications. To better explain goal aims many researchers combine SDT with achievement goal theory which hypothesises that individuals can have varying goal orientations (Gaudreau & Braaten, 2016).

When orientation is focused on outcomes or comparison against others, individuals are said to have an ego or performance focus. Alternatively, goals based on developing skill and knowledge are known as mastery or task goals (Ames, 1992). Children under the age of 12 are naturally mastery oriented (Thorkildsen & Nicholls, 1998). After that things change, and since parent behaviours influence how children understand sporting competition, athletes generally reflect the goal orientation provided by their parents (Atkins, Johnson, Force, & Petrie, 2015).

When parents encourage experimentation and enjoyment, viewing mistakes as learning opportunities, a task or mastery climate is perceived. When success against others is emphasised over effort, an ego or comparison climate is comprehended. Mastery climates are consistently related to persistence and enjoyment of sport with more positive outcomes than ego climates that use social comparisons (Atkins et al., 2015).

Why do kids give up sport?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Peer relationships are an important component of youth sport participation.

Unfortunately, positive outcomes are not an automatic consequence of playing sport. Around one third of children drop out by the time they are 17 years old (Côté & Hancock, 2016). A recent meta-analysis by Crane and Temple (2015) investigated 30 different sports, mainly teams, finding that the biggest reason for drop out was lack of enjoyment. Other contributing factors were perceptions of competence, peer pressure and injuries.

A negative predictor of motivation and enjoyment, particularly in boys, is stress created by parental pressure (Amado et al., 2015). Simply, more pressure equals more stress which leads to less enjoyment and less motivation. Babkes and Weiss (1999) found similarly in soccer players. Those who perceived less pressure performed better, reported greater enjoyment, competence and intrinsic motivation.

Task motivational climates are essential for continued participation but diversity is also important (Atkins et al., 2015). Children who participate in different sports early, rather than specialising, are more likely to have positive experiences, improved developmental outcomes and continued participation (Harwood & Knight, 2015; Russell, Dodd, & Lee, 2017). Diversity also has a positive effect on future elite performance, with consistent support showing the value of sampling many sports early (Côté & Hancock, 2016; Harwood & Knight, 2015).

Keegan, Harwood, Spray, and Lavallee (2009) investigated the influences of parents, coaches and peers on children's sport motivation. Finding the biggest parental influence was in the way parents supported their children in the sporting environment. Saying when parents were more positive, their children in turn experienced greater motivation and enjoyment. They suggested that if parents wanted children to continue in sport, positive feedback, encouragement and support were important tools to use.

Parenting in youth sport isn't easy.[edit | edit source]

Parenting in sport is a dynamic role that requires constantly evolving knowledge and skill, that is generally acquired through trial and error. To date there are limited evidence based studies identifying what is optimal parental involvement with further research required (Harwood & Knight, 2015). What is known, however, is that parents are role models who impact children through their behaviours and beliefs.

Parents' sporting judgements are influenced by their own experiences in sport, knowledge of the sport and the goals they have for their child (Knight, Dorshe, & Sellars, 2016). Sometimes well meaning parents push children to achieve goals they believe are good for them, or are warranted given the time, energy and money involved. This can be in competition or practice, aimed at better future performance. What parents often don't realise is that these actions place pressure children and are unlikely to achieve favourable long term results (Amado et al., 2015).

Parents generally want the best for their child and are only human too. It's understandable they can be torn between wanting to help their children be the best they can be and negotiating how to be a supportive spectator (Holt, 2016). It is likely the empathy parents feel for their children influences their behaviour around competition. One of the major stressors encountered whilst watching their children compete is controlling their own emotions (Knight, Neely, & Holt, 2011). It is therefore vital that parents attempt to be self-aware. This will enable them to understand why and how they are reacting, and what their child sees in their behaviour (Knight, Little, Harwood, & Goodger, 2016).

Click here to see what kids think of their parents watching them play sport?

Omli and Wiese-Bjornstal (2010) asked kids to tell them what they thought of parents' sporting behaviour. Kids said they liked encouragement for mistakes, praise for hard work and cheering when it was for all. They loved attentive watching but not if argumentative, emotional or coaching from the sidelines. Critical encouragement with a frustrated tone was also upsetting. Elite junior canoeists had similar sentiments saying the timing of parental contributions often resulted in loss of focus, although they were also very thankful for their parents' efforts. Not surprisingly, young athletes were the ones found to be most detrimentally affected by stress from adults in the sporting environment (Knight et al., 2016).

Watch this quick video on What kids think of parents watching their sporting events (YouTube).

How to optimise children's intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of sport[edit | edit source]

Considering the parenting in sport job is not easy, it's only sensible to use all tools available. Table 1 outlines practical, scientifically proven strategies that you can use to support your child's development of intrinsic motivation that will flow on to optimise their participation, performance and enjoyment of sport. As a parent, a valuable gift you can give your child is to aim to promote their autonomy rather than seeking their compliance, and it's free! An added bonus is that positive child parent relationships are associated with psychological need satisfying family environments. So aside from watching them prosper, you too will reap benefits associated with a better child parent relationship (Harwood & Knight, 2016).

Table 1.
Parental Tools for Optimal Intrinsic Sport Motivation

Target Area Strategy
  • Give your child choices. Offering choices promotes feelings of autonomy, although the type of choice is also important. Autonomy is not gained from choosing between two highly undesirable tasks (Moller, Deci, & Ryan, 2006).
  • Give kids explanations about why they need to perform behaviours rather than asking for robot like compliance. Rationale giving has been shown to support autonomy when choice is limited (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994).
  • Engage children in conversation about which sports they would like to play (Knight, Harwood, & Gould, 2017). 
  • Encourage tasks of optimal challenge, not too hard and not too easy. Optimal challenge is a predictor of competence and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
  • Give constructive, positive feedback; it will benefit competence, motivation and enjoyment. Negative feedback will undermine it (Keegan et al., 2009; Vallerand & Reid, 1984).
  • Encourage participation in different sporting activities. Studies of elite performers consistently illustrate the value of sampling many types of sport in formative years (Harwood & Knight, 2015).
  • Encourage the team and other participants not just your child (Knight et al., 2011).
  • Make time for your child to interact with friends and peers. Encourage relationships with people who accept them for who they are (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  • Try to view events from your child's perspective (Froiland, 2011).
  • Monitor your emotional reactions while at your child's sporting events. What emotions do you experience whilst watching your child play and does this sometimes impact on the way you act (Hayward, Knight, & Mellalieu, 2017)?
Goal orientation
  • Show your child support, praise, interest and understanding regardless of what the scoreboard says (Knight et al., 2011).
  • Focus on effort rather than outcome and performance (Knight et al., 2011).
  • Promote a task mastery climate. Be accepting of mistakes and failures and treat them as an opportunity to learn not something to punish (Atkins et al., 2015). 
Figure 5. Encourage different sporting activities to enhance competence.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter emphasises the value of sport in youth development. It outlines both parents' and children's goals for sport and acknowledges that parenting in youth sport is difficult, with many parents acquiring skills through trial and error.

It demonstrates how psychological science has shown that pressure and rewards are generally ineffective and, most importantly, detrimental to children's intrinsic motivation. Vitally, through practical real-life tools based on scientific theory and research, it identifies how parents can support their child's psychological needs.

By using these tools, parents can promote a psychological need satisfying sporting environment that supports their child's autonomy, competence and relatedness. When this is combined with a mastery goal orientation the stage will be set for children to develop positive social, mental and physical skills through sport. Which will in turn benefit their development of self-regulation and intrinsic motivation, leading to optimised participation, performance and enjoyment of sport. Culminating in all over positive development which will ultimately enable them to live a more effective motivational and emotional life.

As a parent, a valuable gift you can give your child is to aim to promote their autonomy rather than seeking their compliance, and it's free!

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Amado, D., Sánchez-Oliva, D., González-Ponce, I., Pulido-González, J. J., & Sánchez-Miguel, P. A. (2015). Incidence of parental support and pressure on their children's motivational processes towards sport practice regarding gender. PloS One, 10, e0128015.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 261.

Atkins, M. R., Johnson, D. M., Force, E. C., & Petrie, T. A. (2015). Peers, parents, and coaches, oh my! the relation of the motivational climate to boys' intention to continue in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 170-180.

Babkes, M. L., & Weiss, M. R. (1999). Parental influence on children’s cognitive and affective responses to competitive soccer participation. Pediatric Exercise Science, 11, 44-62.

Bailey, R., Cope, E. J., & Pearce, G. (2013). Why do children take part in, and remain involved in sport? A literature review and discussion of implications for sports coaches. International Journal of Coaching Science, 7.

Côté, J., & Hancock, D. J. (2016). Evidence-based policies for youth sport programmes. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 8, 51-65.

Crane, J., & Temple, V. (2015). A systematic review of dropout from organized sport among children and youth. European Physical Education Review, 21, 114-131.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Random House.

Deci, E. L. (1976). The hidden costs of reward. Organizational Dynamics, 4, 61.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self‐determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119-142.

Froiland, J. M. (2011). Parental autonomy support and student learning goals: A preliminary examination of an intrinsic motivation intervention. Child & Youth Care Forum, 40, 135-149.

Gaudreau, P., & Braaten, A. (2016). Achievement Goals and their Underlying Goal Motivation: Does it Matter Why Sport Participants Pursue their Goals?. Psychologica Belgica, 56.

Gutierrez, M., Caus, N., & Ruiz, L. (2011). The influence of parents on achievement orientation and motivation for sport of adolescent athletes with and without disabilities. Journal of Leisure Research, 43, 355.

Harwood, C. G., & Knight, C. J. (2015). Parenting in youth sport: A position paper on parenting expertise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 24-35.

Hassmén, P., Keegan, R., & Piggott, D. (2017). Rethinking Sport and Exercise Psychology Research: Past, Present and Future. Springer.

Hayward, F. P. I., Knight, C. J., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2017). A longitudinal examination of stressors, appraisals, and coping in youth swimming. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 29, 56-68.

Holt, N. L. (Ed.). (2016). Positive youth development through sport. Routledge.

Jõesaar, H., Hein, V., & Hagger, M. S. (2012). Youth athletes’ perception of autonomy support from the coach, peer motivational climate and intrinsic motivation in sport setting: One-year effects. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 257-262.

Keegan, R. J., Harwood, C. G., Spray, C. M., & Lavallee, D. E. (2009). A qualitative investigation exploring the motivational climate in early career sports participants: Coach, parent and peer influences on sport motivation. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 10, 361-372.

Knight, C. J., Dorsch, T. E., Osai, K. V., Haderlie, K. L., & Sellars, P. A. (2016). Influences on parental involvement in youth sport. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(2), 161.

Knight, C. J., Harwood, C. G., & Gould, D. (Eds.). (2017). Sport Psychology for Young Athletes. Routledge.

Knight, C. J., Little, G. C. D., Harwood, C. G., & Goodger, K. (2016). Parental involvement in elite junior slalom canoeing. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28, 234-256.

Knight, C. J., Neely, K. C., & Holt, N. L. (2011). Parental behaviors in team sports: How do female athletes want parents to behave?. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23, 76-92.

Moller, A. C., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). Choice and ego-depletion: The moderating role of autonomy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1024-1036.

Russell, W., Dodd, R., & Lee, M. (2017). youth athletes' sport motivation and physical activity enjoyment across specialization status. Journal of Contemporary Athletics, 11.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

Thorkildsen, T. A., & Nicholls, J. G. (1998). Fifth graders' achievement orientations and beliefs: Individual and classroom differences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 179.

Vallerand, R. J., & Reid, G. (1984). On the Causal Effects of Perceived Competence on Intrinsic Motivation: A Test of Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Journal Of Sport Psychology, 6, 94-102.

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Intrinsic versus extrinsic goal contents in self-determination theory: Another look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 41, 19-31.

External links[edit | edit source]