A child’s motivation to play sports arises from both internal and external rewards. Internal rewards are ones that are intrinsic to the activity itself—the feelings within us that are evoked when we engage in a certain behavior. Examples include the satisfaction a child gains from mastering a new skill or performing to personal expectations, the thrill of participating in a close contest, the joy from running around and expending physical energy, the warm sense of belonging (to a larger group who share similar values), and while playing, experiencing the “flow” that comes from an expanded awareness and living in the moment.
External Rewards Have Their Place, But…External rewards, on the other hand, are ones that come from outside the activity—usually from another person. These external rewards can be either abstract or concrete. For example, praise received from a parent or coach for performing a certain behavior well is an abstract external reward, as is an excessive focus on the scoreboard and winning. Treating a child to an ice cream cone after a good game is an example of a concrete external reward.
Both internal and external rewards play a role in motivating an athlete. At more competitive levels of play, external rewards such as playing time, public and peer recognition, scholarship offers, and money can all drive training and performance to higher levels. In youth sports, and especially with beginners, parental praise often plays an important role. It helps motivate a child to play sports at a time when his or her skill level doesn’t generate the necessary internal rewards. Similarly, trophies and wearing “cool” uniforms are external rewards that can motivate a young athlete’s interest in sports.
But external rewards also have a downside. Too much emphasis on these types of rewards may cause a young athlete to lose sight of the intrinsic motivators associated with playing the sport. And when the external rewards disappear, so does the child’s desire to participate.
Helping Your Child Experience the Internal RewardsAlthough external rewards may help a child achieve greater success in the short run, it’s the internal rewards that will drive the child’s life-long appreciation and enjoyment of sports participation. As a parent, you should:
- Seek out coaches who not only teach technique, but also help elicit an understanding in your child of the internal rewards and benefits of participating in the sport.
- Lessen excessive parental praise, criticism, or other external parental influences that can dull your child’s joy of participation and sense of self-reliance.
- Promote opportunities for your child to enjoy unstructured and self-organized play (neighborhood pickup games).
- Play catch with your child or engage in some other family sports activity (one with fun, friendly competition). Consider extending the family dinner time to include these activities.
[This post is an excerpt from my book: The Joy of Youth Sports]
Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved