Understanding Motivation in Youth Sports

Many professionals have addressed motivating young athletes, yet there are still some people who cannot figure out how to achieve the level of motivation they desire. Instead of focusing on the different ways that we can attempt to increase the motivation of young athletes, let’s try first to understand all of the different factors that encompass motivation, concentrating on how coaches can understand motivating factors in youth athletes. Many articles written and studies performed with the common goal of finding out how to increase motivation in youth sports. Despite all of the advances made, many parents, coaches, and teachers still have a difficult time getting their young athletes excited to go and play their respective sports. I suggest that the focus is shifted towards getting to know each athlete before stressing that they are not all that excited to go and play their sport.


An easy way to try and better understand the motivation that each athlete has within them is by having real conversations with the athletes and listening to what they have to say. I realize that this can be difficult with kids who tend to be more on the quiet side, but there are ways to find common ground with all kids. Start by talking to them about school or what they like to do in their free time. You would be surprised how much young children like to talk once you get them going on a subject of interest. With limited practice time and conflicts with different family schedules, it may sometimes be impossible to have a close relationship with each team member. However, throughout a long season, there are plenty of opportunities to engage your players in conversations that might not necessarily be sport-related. So what is the point of getting to know them? That’s a good question.

As a prospective Physical Education and Health teacher, I have learned throughout my experiences that kids respond positively to being personally engaged rather than receiving general feedback that may be presented to the entire class (in this case, the team). The better you get to know each child, the more you can learn about them. In some cases, young athletes participate in the sport because they are highly skilled and have much success playing the sport. These athletes do not always need adding motivation to perform their best, but the focus with high-skilled athletes should be on how to continually challenge them so that they can achieve their full potential. If a coach fails to challenge the high-skilled athlete constantly, it can be expected that that young athlete could become disinterested in the sport, demonstrating a perceived lack of motivation or enthusiasm. Sometimes these higher-skilled athletes are more competitive than most of their teammates. Nearly all coaches hope to have athletes on their team who have a competitive spirit, as these athletes tend to get excited about the good competition and expect a lot from themselves. Coaches should be aware that they have to give their best effort to ensure that they are put into situations where they can compete. These athletes might lose interest in the sport or team if they are constantly performing drills and working on technique rather than being in a modified, game-like situation. However, having to challenge high-skilled athletes constantly is not always the case in youth sports. In fact, it is oftentimes the less skilled athletes who outsiders view as showing a lack of motivation in the sport.

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This perceived lack of motivation can have several causes, most of which cannot be discovered by asking young athletes why they are not motivated in the sport. Some kids enjoy learning and expect to be taught different concepts of techniques about the sport. Some of these kids might not enjoy the intensity of competition and tend to “freeze up” on game day. Often, these athletes are viewed as showing a lack of motivation because the coach or parent doesn’t understand what the athlete really wants to get out of participating in the sport. Instead of getting upset with these athletes or punishing them for showing a perceived “lack of motivation,” coaches should seek to understand the reasoning why these athletes do not show as much enthusiasm for the games as they do during practice or other aspects of the sport. It is important to understand that each athlete is different, and each has different things going on in their lives that may or may not affect their on-field performance.


This goes along with the idea of getting to know your athletes better and on a more personal level to fully understand their degree of motivation in the sport. Their parent or guardian may pressure some athletes to play the sport, thus not participating because of genuine interest. This can pose a threat to team motivation since these athletes do not really want to be playing, and their lack of enthusiasm or enjoyment might spread to other team members as their peers can easily influence young athletes. How can this be prevented? Based on my experiences of interacting with young kids who might not be interested in the sport or activity, the best thing you can do is try to make whatever they are doing as fun as possible. As soon as the young athlete starts to have fun, they will quickly forget that they are being forced to participate in the sport.

However, there will times in sports where drills or technique needs to be stressed, which might be difficult to try and make fun or exciting for the kids. There are always ways to add excitement or competition to any drill or skill that is being practiced. I have found ways to make the least enjoyable activities fun for the young athletes I have coached or taught. For example, the basketball team that I was a volunteer coach for was having trouble running the set of offensive plays during a stretch of games, so one practice was dedicated to just running plays against their own teammates. The team was not thrilled that they couldn’t play any real game or be in game situations. To lighten the mood and deviate from the drilling that had to occur, I made a deal that if they could perform the designed plays with success (scoring) for five plays in a row, I would run sprints with them after practice.

Making things fun for your team can be as simple as something like that, anything that can be done will bring a smile to their faces and make them see that you want to have fun as long as there is learning taking place. When athletes have fun while playing their respective sports, it makes it that much more enjoyable for them and more likely to bring a positive, enthusiastic attitude to the playing field. Making things fun and gaining a better understanding of the young athletes are excellent ways to increase the enjoyment and motivation levels, but further understanding of the athlete’s interests is imperative to ensure a cohesive team environment.


Another factor that comes into play when evaluating the motivation or enthusiasm that an athlete display is the confidence level that the athlete has in his or her own abilities. Athletes, especially younger athletes, tend to be very sensitive when it comes to criticism and feedback. Some athletes are aware that they are not as talented as others, which affects their ability to perform as they may feel nervous about letting down their parents, teammates, or coaches. Coaches must ensure that a majority (preferably all) of the feedback or critique that the team is receiving is positive in nature to fully understand the things they are doing correctly or need to improve on. If young athletes are addressed negatively, the more sensitive athletes will usually not respond well to it. It may result in an increased sense of anxiety about their performance, which can have a detrimental effect on their growth and improvement in the sport. In addition to making the athletes feel more comfortable about their performance, positive feedback will serve as a good example for the entire team that demonstrates the main goal of working hard to improve each time that they step on the field or court. If the athletes on the team see from their coach that criticizing others is not acceptable and will not be tolerated, it will translate into an environment that includes positive interactions amongst teammates. A positive environment will help alleviate any pressures or doubts that young athletes might have about the sport.

It should be understood by coaches, parents, or other influential figures that young athletes are dynamic because they all have different abilities and all differ in how they perceive the respective sport. It is important to build positive relationships with each athlete on the team to try and understand the feelings and backgrounds that each athlete lives with. In addition to building positive relationships with young athletes, criticism or feedback is also of great importance as it can impact how the athletes respond when they fail in their goals. Young athletes need to be taught that not everything will work perfectly all of the time and that mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities. If this approach is taken in addition to having positive relationships with athletes, it will create an environment that is conducive to learning and improving in all aspects of the sport, which can be translated into how they respond to adverse scenarios throughout their lives.