How to Help Kids Enjoy Youth Sports

“You’re out!”
“No I’m not!”
“…OK…do over!”

Do you remember the great “do over” rule from playing with neighborhood friends and at recess? 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—surely we all remember this from our own childhood, right? 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. 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. We structure sport and competitions to constantly compare them to others—always pushing them to “be better than…” 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 that motivational psychology suggests are crucial to being intrinsically motivated, which means the reward is the activity itself. Here are a few 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 and make a game out of drills, letting them set their own rules.

• Rather than 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 (What do you think about the game? How did you do?).

• Let kids have a chance to be with and make friends. Get out of the way! Group them to work on drills and play games together.

• Encourage a positive and fun atmosphere.

• Emphasize self-improvement over winning or beating others. When giving a correction, provide instruction rather than criticism.

Find out more about the recreation and sport management major in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies at krss.utk.edu.

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