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Giving kids more of what they want in sports.

Do you know what your kid’s favorite food is? Do you know what irritates them? Do you know what they feel self-conscious about? Do you know what their favorite sport is? Do you know why they play?

How do you know?

We think we know a lot about our kids… and we do. We have spent more time with them than anyone else on the planet has. We have watched them grow. We’ve watched them spit out food they don’t like. We’ve seen the smile on their face and heard them laugh when doing something they love. We think we know what’s going on inside just by looking at them. It’s not necessarily the case. If we really want to know their motivation, we actually have to ask them.

We know that our kids can learn great life lessons from sports and find their way to being their best selves. The problem is, kids are dropping out at alarming rates (70% by age 13). If we want our kids to keep playing sports into their teenage years and beyond, we have to know why they play. How can we make sports more appealing if we don’t know what makes it appealing in the first place?

It was time to conduct some exhaustive research. I wanted to see how a sample size of two (my own kids) would answer this question. Why do you play sports?

Here’s what they said:

“It’s fun”

“I’m good at it”

“I like hanging out with my friends”

“I like the feeling of getting better at something”

“I like being part of a team”

“I like getting exercise and feeling fit”

“I like the excitement of competition”

As it turns out, these responses are typical of kids across the country. In 2014, researchers at George Washington University asked the same question. Nine out of ten kids said that “fun” was the main reason they participate. When asked to define it, they listed 81 different ways sports could be fun, ranking “winning” all the way down at number 48! If they don’t care about winning, maybe we shouldn’t care so much either.

When I look at the list, I’m encouraged. I realize that kids are intrinsically motivated to participate. They truly want to play sport for its own sake, because the rewards and benefits come from actually playing and being part of a team. We don’t have to threaten or bribe or cajole them. All we have to do is give them more of what they want.

Here are a few ways you can help.

  1. Lighten up! If kids play because it’s fun, let’s not turn it into boot camp. Laugh a little. Laugh a lot. Develop inside jokes. Plan some goofy time. Parents, take the pressure off! This is youth sports. It’s not life and death. You get to have fun, too!

  2. Prioritize connection- If one of the main reasons kids play is to be with their friends, make sure they get some time to connect. Coaches can intentionally foster the relationships between players through partner activities and getting-to-know-you games. As parents, we can facilitate connections, too. Get to know the other parents. Invite teammates over. Meet at a park.

  3. Create a mastery environment- Kids like to feel competent and to know that they’re getting better. Notice when your child improves on or masters a skill. Ask them how they feel about it. Help them make friends with failure and to recognize that it’s helping them get better. Focus on the process and de-emphasize winning.

  4. Build team bonds- Recognize the value of everyone’s unique contribution to the team, no matter how small. Being part of something bigger than themselves helps kids get in touch with a higher purpose. Create team rituals, team handshakes, team cheers. Look for opportunities for team bonding activities.

  5. Celebrate their healthy bodies- Help kids to be aware all the amazing things their strong and fit body can do. Notice as their energy and fitness improve and point it out. As coaches, we can build conditioning into fun games, so they get a great workout without even realizing it.

  6. Help their butterflies fly in formation- Kids love the thrill of competition, so help them to channel any anxiety into courage and excitement. Teach them that their opponents are helping them to get the best out of themselves, rather than being the “enemy”.

We can help keep kids involved in sports by finding out what’s appealing to them and milking those aspects. Each child is unique, so I’d encourage you to ask your own kids why they play. Their answers may surprise you, and at the very least you’ll get a chance to know them better.