A recent Wall Street Journal article examined some interesting sport psychology research pertaining to parental involvement in youth sports. Specifically, the study found that greater parental spending is associated with lower level levels of young athlete motivation and enjoyment. This finding may surprise some from the philosophy camp of “more is better” when it comes to enjoyable life pursuits, but these findings actually make perfect sense when you delve into the psychological underpinnings. The quick takeaway here is parents can’t want for something to happen to their kid more than the kid wants it to happen.
Examining human motivation (theory)
Basic principles of operant learning (behaviorism) show that when we are reinforced (rewarded) for things we typically do more of the behavior, and when there is no reward we run the risk of becoming quickly disinterested. In the case of the sports parent research findings, parents who over-invest might be receiving positive reinforcement (possibly through the prestige of having a child on an elite team), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is also benefiting from the same positive reinforcement. More simply, if the kid doesn’t necessarily love playing sports, mom and dad’s investment of time and money probably won’t do much to change things — and could even make things worse.
Another related idea to this issue has to do with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when we do things in life mostly to be rewarded (like winning a trophy for coming in 1st place). Intrinsic motivation, however, has to do with experiencing things in life for our own pleasure and self-satisfaction (for example, millions of people run marathons each year and most do it for self-accomplishment, not because they honestly think they have a chance at winning). Intrinsic motivation is a much stronger force over the long haul — it’s essentially what keeps you up late at night, and gets you out of bed early in the morning. Of course, extrinsic motivation usually “works” in the short run (as BF Skinner has shown us with his work relating to operant learning), but tends to lose its power over time when rewards are no longer seen as valuable as they once were. Applying this to kids in sports, some kids might initially be motivated to play because they get to win a trophy, but over time this reward will lose its luster if the child doesn’t find stronger reasons (intrinsic) to continue playing.
So back to the current research – if you have a kid who never was fully invested in the idea of becoming a successful athlete, then it probably won’t matter how much time or money you invest. Similarly, while parents might be positively reinforced for their investments, kids might not be reinforced at all if their “awards” are not truly valued. What does all this imply?
- Try as you might, it’s an incredible long-shot to actually “create” a future sports star, even if he or she has natural abilities (Todd Marinovich, the Williams sisters, and Tiger Woods are exceptions, not the norm)
- It’s also near impossible to create intrinsic motivation within your kid – sure, you might have some success early on with extrinsic motivation, but getting your son or daughter to enjoy something purely for his or her own reasons is an entirely different pursuit
- There are major risks involved in going overboard with time and money being devoted to your child’s athletic success – youth sport burnout is one potential problem, but when kids feel the expectations of their parents and don’t feel as though their own values are being considered that is a very dangerous situation to be in as a family. In these instances I have personally worked with kids who have turned to drinking, drugs, and various reckless behaviors
Again, the findings of this research really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you dig deeper. Sources and strength of human motivation depend on many intricate interactions and “manufacturing” motivation (or athletic success) is an endeavor that should be taken very carefully (if pursued at all). The best advice here is to let kids play and allow the future decisions around sports to unfold on their own – if your child shows a lot of motivation toward playing then consider a greater investment, but if she doesn’t you might want to hold off on forcing something that simply isn’t there.