Some kids love playing sports. Some kids love eating veggies. What do we do about the ones that don’t? Should we bribe them (money, treats, screen-time)? Should we threaten them? In the short term, they would still get nutrition from the broccoli, and exercise benefits from the basketball, but are we undermining our longer term goals? Will we end up with intrinsically motivated adults who make healthy
lifestyle choices? Probably not.
We can “make” kids do things that are good for them, but we can’t make them “want” to do them. External motivators (bribes, threats) may get them to do things temporarily, but when they love something for its own sake, they will do it without that pressure.
I have some suggestions for encouraging reluctant athletes, but first let’s look at the cost of manipulating our kids into doing something we hope they’ll want to do anyway.
WHAT ARE THE COSTS OF MAKING THEM PLAY?
Sports are less appealing
If you have to convince them by bribing or forcing them, kids get the message that sports must be really distasteful. Their activity may be seen as a chore to be suffered through and not as something fun and intrinsically enjoyable. Our kids are less likely to want to exercise (or eat veggies) once they have a choice.
We lose our influence
Kids feel resentful that they are being manipulated. This damages their relationship with us (think about how you feel about people who try to coerce you into doing something). They become less cooperative when they think of us as the “enemy”. If we want to have influence over them and become their trusted advisors when they’re teenagers, we need to protect our relationship with them now.
Kids learn to manipulate and bully
By coercing or just plain making them play, we’re modeling that the way to get someone to do what we want is by manipulating them. There’s no room for negotiation or compromise. We see this play out on playgrounds across the country. Kids get the message that if someone says “no” to them, they should do whatever it takes to get them to say “yes”.
They think our love is conditional
If we “approve” of them only if they’re doing what we want, kids think that what they do is more important than who they are. They think they have to constantly prove themselves in order to be worthy of love and attention. They may lack confidence to try new things and feel anxious about their value as human beings.
SO, HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE THEM?
If we’re not going to force them to play, but we know that kids can get a lot out of sports, we need to find ways to inspire them. It starts with making sports more appealing (see my last post for suggestions). If, when we watch a practice or a game, the kids are having fun, coaches are engaging and parents are supportive, the sport sells itself. Our kids will be begging to join. If not, here are some ways to support kids who are reluctant to get involved.
Uncover what their resistance is. Find out what they may be afraid of or uncomfortable with. Rather than explaining why they’re wrong or reassuring them, just listen to what they have to say. Ask them questions. Ask why they think other people like to play. Do they think other kids felt anxious when they first started? How do they think those kids dealt with it? Don’t try to “fix it”. Maybe they don’t like how YOU are when they play sports. Be open to hearing without judgement.
Offer them choices.
Just as there are more vegetables than just broccoli, there are plenty of different sports and ways to get moving. We can let them know that their health is important to us and that we want to support them to be active. We are not going to force them to do a specific sport, but would like to help them find something they like. We can make suggestions, but we also need to listen to them. Know that organized sports are not the only place they can get a lifelong love of exercise.
Invite them to play, rather than force them.
Take them to the park or the beach or the neighborhood courts. Teach them the skills without any pressure. They will usually get excited to notice their skills improving and may want to do more at an organized level. We’re also showing them how much fun you can have playing sports. The trick is to not be invested in the outcome. We’re offering them an opportunity, rather than trying to convince them.
Find role models.
Take them to games at all levels, from professional all the way down to juniors. The idea of showing them the professional level is to inspire them, not for them to compare themselves. Remind them that those pros were once beginners like they are. Showing them kids having fun playing at different levels can be motivating. (Disclaimer: I can’t promise that some parents in the stands won’t turn your kid off playing, so maybe scout it out first!)
The idea is that we inspire our kids to find joy in things that are healthy for them. We’d love them to eat veggies because they like the taste and the energy they get from eating well. We’d like kids to play sports for the love of it, the friendships and the fun. Let’s use our influence to support and encourage, rather than to bribe and manipulate. We may end up closer to them and be more influential in the long run.