What Makes a Child Love a Sport?


We all know the virtues that a child will learn playing sports — discipline, motivation, commitment, and cooperation, according to child psychologist Laurie Zelinger (www.drzelinger.com). But sometimes, (most times?), parents and teachers go a little (a lot?) overboard in their zealousness. Their (your?) intentions are good, but the results — well, not so much. Here are some suggestions to help children love a sport.

Keep the big picture in view — this means forgetting the college scholarship

It’s really important for teachers and parents to remember the wonderful reason and terrific lessons kids will learn from sports — as we were saying — discipline, motivation, commitment, and cooperation. It’s good to keep the big picture in view. What becomes detrimental is when an adult’s dream of a child’s success, be it winning a college scholarship or winning national recognition for their teacher, becomes the focus.
Many adults forget the big picture, they lose sight of the gains in social, emotional, and physical development that they originally wanted for the child. Daniel Gould, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University in East Lansing (http://www.sportsmindskills.com), cautions that if you put too much emphasis on winning and rankings it results in stress and fear.

Ironically, if this emphasis is maintained as a child gets older, [Patty, I’m confused. Do you mean emphasis on winning and rankings or emphasis on social, emotional, physical development?] it will most likely result in better performance because the child will not be feeling the stress and pressure to win. Sort of like as adults we often find we play better when we are just playing for fun than when we are in a serious competition.

Focusing on the process, not the outcome, at any age will make the sport more fun.

When the Aspen Institute Project Play (www.aspenprojectplay.org) interviewed parents on their concerns about their children and why they left sports, 66% mentioned the negative impact of the emphasis on winning over having fun.

Don’t judge!  Parents and Teachers often are Oblivious to doing this!

Show interest in a child’s overall experience by asking open-ended questions such as, “Why was that fun?”  Especially with young children (ages 2-5), you don’t want to focus on mastery or achievement of skills. Praise inventiveness and originality. This can be a lot harder than it sounds. When you see a child holding a golf club backward it can be really difficult to not turn the club around into the “right” position. And harder still to show delight in the imaginative technique!

Avoid Comparisons — Siblings, Friends, Celebrities included

It’s important to encourage children to focus on their own performance and not someone else’s. It’s even more important that we as adults do the same thing. It can be very tempting, especially when we see a child performing better than those his or her age to make a big deal of this. The fact is it’s impossible to predict what level of expertise a child will develop in a sport. Also, if you don’t compare, your child will be less likely to grow up comparing himself/herself to those he or she perceives as “better.” As you can imagine, this can spiral down into many unwanted consequences for the child.

Stay Positive — It’s a harder teaching method than you might think

Just as when a child is learning to crawl, you cheer the child on, applauding the accomplishment and encouraging the child to continue. You don’t criticize form or say, “Let’s stand up and try to walk now.” You praise the process and don’t start pushing for a greater outcome. It’s an interesting experiment to record yourself as you are teaching or coaching a child. Try to forget that you’ve pressed the “record” button. Then, after the teaching is over, listen to your comments. Ask yourself if you were positive and if you focused on the process. Listen to see if you slipped into the trap of praising outcome.

Model Good Behavior — Kids Learn by Watching You

Never forget that children are sponges; they are constantly observing and in doing so they are learning about the world. Actions truly do speak louder than words. In fact, long before children even understand many of our words, they are observing us and learning from us.

An article in Psychological Science tells about a study of Australian preschoolers and Kalahari Bushman children that demonstrated something called over-imitation. Children apparently copy everything an adult is showing them, not just the basic steps that lead to an outcome — and this appears to be a universal human activity!

So think about what you want to be teaching, and make sure that you are showing, not just telling, the child what that behavior looks like. If you want the child to help clean up, show them what cleaning up looks like. If you want to not get frustrated, make certain you are not exhibiting frustration. If you want the child to be excited about the sport, make sure that you are showing that excitement.