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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Making Sport a Daily Habit: What Motivates Children to Take Part in Sport?

I am really pleased to present a Guest Post from Ed Cope, a specialist researcher in Youth Sport at the University of Berdfordshire in the UK.

Ed's topic is one of perennial interest and importance: children's participation in sport.

Comments and responses to this (and previous) posts are positively encouraged.

In most sport coaching contexts, children can choose whether or not they wish to participate in sport. Therefore, it could be assumed that all children who engage in some form of sport or physical activity do so because they want to. However, not all children take part in sport for the same reasons. A large body of literature exists that documents children’s motivations for taking part in sport. This blog discusses the key findings from the literature that specifically relate to children’s motivations for participating. Furthermore, a number of recommendations will be made, which will enable coaches to deliver more developmentally appropriate coaching practices.

Children engage in sport for a variety of reasons. From comprehensively reviewing the literature, five common themes have consistently emerged. Each of these themes will be briefly discussed in this section.

Perceived competence
Children with a high perceived competence level are much more likely to participate in sport, than children with low competency levels. High competency is achieved when children experience a feeling of success. Alternatively, children’s competency levels decrease when they experience failure. It is often the case that children perceive competence against the level of effort they exert. Therefore, if a child is rewarded for the amount of effort they put in, their competence levels will likely increase.

Fun and enjoyment
Fun and enjoyment has largely been considered the primary motive for why children take part in sport. However, there is no one global definition of fun and enjoyment. According to some researchers, it has been suggested that a number of sources affect what children perceive to be fun and enjoyable. These sources can be grouped into three categories; achievement (skill mastery, perceived competence and physical appearance), social (friendships, social recognition, adult interaction and team interaction), and intrinsic (excitement and energy, flow, movement sensations and good times). It is important to understand what sources affect children’s motivations to participate.

Parents have considerable influence over children’s motivation to take part in sport. In particular, parents can influence their children’s perception of competence through the role they play in their children’s sporting life. The extent, to which parents become involved in their children’s sport, will either promote motivation levels, or decrease them. It has been suggested that over-involved parents who pressure their children to win, have a negative effect on their motivation. At the same time, under-involved parents who show little appreciation of children’s efforts will also have a de-motivating impact on their willingness to maintain participating. It is recommended that parents show care and support, with an emphasis on effort, teamwork and fun.

Learning new skills
Research in swimming and athletic contexts suggest that some children take in sport in order to satisfy their intrinsic motivations of learning new skills. The reasons stated were that children enjoy learning new skills to make them better at the sport they participated in, and because of the inherent challenge it presented. In addition, it has been found that some children also wish to learn new skills to impress coaches, parents and friends/teammates.

Friends and Peers
Although not as significant a motivational factor as some of the other sources that have been discussed, friends and peers do influence children’s motivations to take part in sport. Children cite friends and peers as motivational influences when they are given the opportunity to work together, gain social acceptance, and make friendships. When placed in situations that promote direct competition, many children become de-motivated.

Key points

  • The majority of research, which has studied children’s motivations to participate in sport, has done so from a psychological viewpoint. However, children’s motivations are also influenced by a number of socio-cultural factors (e.g. parents and friends). Considering this, motivation is a context specific phenomenon, as what motivates one child in one context, may not necessarily motivate them in another.
  • Most children are intrinsically motivated to take part in sport (i.e. they participate for reasons such as wanting to learn new skills or because they enjoy participating). Coaches must be aware that they are responsible for creating the coaching environment, with this influencing children’s desire to remain intrinsically motivated. Consequently, if children are to remain motivated, the coaching environment must be aligned with the reasons for children wanting to participate.

  • Coaches, who use more positive behaviours, over more negative behaviours, have been found to maintain and increase the level of children’s motivation. Coaches should minimize their use of negative behaviours, but also be aware that constant delivery of positive behaviours such as general positive feedback will have an adverse effect on children’s motivation.

  • Coaches should look to limit the amount of instruction they give. It has been argued that too much instruction impacts on the ability of children to engage in decision making and problem solving tasks. Instead, an effective coaching strategy is to remain silent for periods of coaching practice, as this allows a coach to observe and reflect on practice. At the same time, it allows children to make their own decisions and work problems out for themselves.

  • Coaches must strive to understand the personal motivations of all of the children they are coaching. As has been highlighted, children have many different motivations for participating.

Further reading

Keegan, R. J., Harwood, C. G., Spray, C. M., & Lavallee, D. E. (2009). A qualitative investigation exploring the motivational climate in early-career sports participants: Coach, parent and peer influences on sport motivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 361-372

McCarthy, P. J., & Jones, M. V. (2007). A Qualitative Study of Sport Enjoyment in the Sampling Years. The Sports Psychologist, 21, 400-416

Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., Barnett, N. P., & Everett, J. J. (1993). Enhancement of Children’s Self-Esteem Through Social Support Training for Youth Sport Coaches. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78 (4), 602-210.

Wall, M., & Côté, J. (2007). Developmental activities  that lead to dropout and investment in sport. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 12(1), 77-87.

Weiss, M. R., & Petlichkoff, L. M. (1989). Children’s Motivation for Participation in and Withdrawal from Sport: Identifying the Missing Links. Paediatric Exercise Science, 1, 195-211.

Weiss, M. R. (1993). Children’s Participation in Physical Activity: Are We Having Fun Yet? Paediatric Exercise Science, 5(3), 205-210.

Ed is currently a full time PhD student at the University of Bedfordshire. His research interests are centred around the pedagogical practices that children's sport coaches employ, and how these impact on children's sporting experiences. Ed is also a practicing children’s sports coach.

Ed can be contacted by email:

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