Sports psychology for young athletes: Powerful motivators

Posted by David Asp, Ed.D.
September 23, 2013

David Asp

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic rewards

In the past few years there has been increasing emphasis at the national, state and local levels on athletic performance. Youth sports have become highly organized and competitive. School age children attend structured camps and clinics with increasing demand to make “A” teams, traveling squads or varsity level teams. In some parts of the country, T-ball is even offered to two-year-olds. Well-intended parents can be overly involved and become a source of stress to young athletes by over identifying a child’s performance as a fulfillment of their own self-worth, living unfulfilled dreams, or thinking an athletic scholarship or professional contract is just around the corner.

The expectation to do well or win can exert tremendous psychological pressure on young athletes, coaches and parents. While competition is as American as apple pie, too much of it can undermine many of the goals of youth sports. Goals such as character development, teamwork, discipline, self esteem development, confidence building and conflict resolution can be compromised. Too much pressure in athletes can lead to self criticism, anxiety disorders, anger problems and depression as well as undermine a young athlete’s intrinsic motivation to play. 

When participation in an activity is inherently pleasurable and effort is based on enjoyment of competition or the desire to learn and improve, it is called intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, when an activity is directed more by trophies, ribbons, salaries, scholarships or approval from others, people are extrinsically motivated. While both internal and external rewards can improve motivation, psychologists have learned that intrinsic feelings, having fun and perceptions of autonomy, creativity and competence are the most powerful motivators. Such motivators encourage participation in an activity because the activity is rewarding.


How do you engage your child in a sports activity without being too pushy as a parent? Here are some tips for helping young athletes enjoy sports participation to the fullest:

  1. Allow young athletes a sense of control to facilitate self-determination. Athletes who feel a sense of ownership and a part of the program will feel a greater sense of involvement. If an athlete perceives something or someone as controlling or the cause of their behavior as external to themselves, motivation often declines.
  2. Encourage growth for success. In the book Mindset psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D. discusses ways to develop a “growth” mindset. A growth mindset focuses on every experience—good or bad—as an opportunity to learn, to improve and to continue to strive to reach full potential. Therefore, regardless of the outcome of the game or the athlete’s performance, parents can promote a growth mindset by placing a positive focus on the effort an athlete made by asking: What went well? What was learned today? What can be improved upon?
  3. Recognize young athletes for their progress and the efforts they make to improve themselves. Psychologist and coach John Tauer, Ph.D. says that when the hardest workers (whether naturally talented or not) and the most improved players are recognized, it sends a message that hard work and persistence is highly valued. As Gandhi once said, “Full effort is full victory.”
  4. Help young athletes focus on age-appropriate process orientated goals as opposed to outcome goals. Process orientated goals are specific behaviors to be achieved such as learning a specific skill or strategy, attaining fitness or training goals. Outcome goals—especially winning or losing—are only partially under the control of an individual. Teammates, other competitors, officials, coaches and situational factors can play a significant role in competitive event outcomes. A focus on process goals encourages an athlete’s self-confidence, win or lose. Great athletes tend to evaluate their play on the effort they put into a performance and not on winning or losing.
  5. Model positive attitudes by using adversity as an opportunity to learn and focus on future improvement rather than dwelling on the past. This provides validation and optimism to the young athlete. Parents and coaches may remind the athlete of his/her achievements and show how adversity can be turned into a positive.

Remember, involvement in sports is a learning process. Constructive feedback means helping the young athlete learn and improve on a skill or behavior. Using positive motivators to increase creativity and competence makes the sport more enjoyable for all.

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