When left to their own devices, children are usually very resourceful in administering rules, ensuring fair play, and getting plenty of physical activity.
“Research has shown that the number one reason children seek out sport participation is because it’s fun,” said Jedediah Blanton, assistant professor of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.
Other reasons children cite for sport involvement include being with friends, getting exercise, and improving their skills.
“We adults, too, pursue activities where we can enjoy socializing and increasing our competencies,” said Blanton. “It feels good to be with people we like and feeling like we’re good at something.”
One key difference in how adults pursue activities and how children experience sport is autonomy, or having choice about our actions and experiences.
“When adults organize sport for kids we tend to think that we must be in charge completely. This immediately reduces their autonomy, and then oftentimes we forget to let children have time to make and be with friends,” said Blanton. “We structure sport and competitions to constantly compare them to others—always pushing them to be better than someone else so that they can win.
“We can’t argue that winning isn’t fun—it is—but kids tend to get over losing (and winning) pretty quickly if they have fun. It’s when they think they’ve let down an important adult that participation in sport becomes stressful.”
Autonomy, a sense of belonging, and increasing skill are the three key ingredients to being intrinsically motivated, which means the reward is the activity itself.
Blanton offers the following ways to help children enjoy sports:
Give kids the chance to make decisions. Let them choose the drills or the order of skills to work on. Make a game out of drills and let them set their own rules.
Ask simple questions. Rather than immediately reviewing a practice or game (especially a loss) as soon as you get to the car, let the child bring it up, or ask simple open-ended questions like “What did you think about the game?”
Get out of the way! Let kids have a chance to be with and make friends. Group them to work on drills and play games together.
Emphasize self-improvement over winning or beating others. When giving a correction, provide instruction rather than criticism. Encourage a positive and fun atmosphere.
Tell them you love to watch them play. After a practice or game, no matter the result, tell your child how much you enjoy watching them play the sport, rather than discussing the play-by-play, offering suggestions, or criticizing mistakes.
Tyra Haag (865-974-5460, firstname.lastname@example.org)