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Motivating Your Young Athlete to Work Harder and Get Better

Plato said it best when he stated, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training.  It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”  Your young athlete—son, daughter, or trainee under your tutelage—has the capability to see the best his or her body can perform.  He or she may be a dancer, a boxer, a football player, runner, or tennis player.  Whichever sport your athlete prefers, there are ways to motivate him or her to reach his or her best.

Be Flexible in Your Coaching Style.

You may have encountered this situation before: you tell your child or student athlete what to do and they become completely obstinate to your commands or simply cannot seem to learn what you are teaching.  Just as students learn in different ways in the classroom, so do athletes learn in different ways in the field (or court, or track).  No one style works for everyone, which is why you must adapt to your athletes as individuals and as a team.  Your young athlete is constantly in a state of change—their bodies are changing, their moods are fluctuating constantly, and he or she is trying desperately to learn what it means to be an adult.  This is a confusing time to be certain, so flexibility is key.  In general, coaching styles can be summarized as thus:

  • Command Style.  This style is dictatorial.  The coach or parent issues direct instruction that the young athlete must perform.
  • Discovery Style.  The athlete is encouraged to discover options in their own time.
  • Reciprocal Style.  The athlete is allowed the responsibility to develop his or her own skills under the supervision of the coach.
  • Problem Solving Style.  The coach creates problems in which it is the athlete’s responsibility to solve.

Give your young athlete a variety of techniques to keep him or her motivated.  Using only one approach, such as command style, may make them stubborn, or they will burn out under the pressure.  On the other hand, too much of the discovery child may make the child become lazy.  Get to know your young athlete to understand which works best for him or her.

Use Positive Affirmation

You use—or do not use—positive affirmation every day, even if you are not aware of it.  Positive affirmation is the process of using positive, specific statements to help a person overcome negative thoughts about themselves.  Doling out positive affirmation is a tricky process.  If an athlete receives too little affirmation from a young age, they may become discouraged and have low self-esteem for themselves and their potential.  On the other hand, too much positive affirmation can encourage mediocrity, laziness, and entitlement.  A parent, coach, or other authority figure has the power to transform the young athlete by treating him or her based on his or her individual abilities.  If he is already an excelling athlete, you may want to be careful about giving too much affirmation, as his performance can plateau.  On the contrary, she might be a passionate athlete but struggles to keep up with the pack.   If you give her the affirmation to keep trying, then she can keep up the motivation to carry on.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement and positive affirmation are in fact entirely different entities.  Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that is proven to help shape behavior.  The person presents a desirable treat or gift that will get the subject to respond to the person’s request.  If they expect something in return, they will likely perform the act again.  Sound familiar?  This is the same training tactic used on any trainable animal, including dogs, cats, sea lions, dolphins, pigs, and more.  The key to positive reinforcement is similar to that of positive affirmation.  That is, too little positive reinforcement, such as omitting award ceremonies, may dissuade some athletes to compete better.  However, too much reinforcement, such as giving an athlete a free ICEE from the local 7-Eleven every single time they do something great will make them entitled.  Positive reinforcement should only be used when someone does something exceptional. These reinforcements can also work in a cyclical manner; for example, your baseball player advances from his high school JV team to Varsity; grab him one of the baseball gloves here to award his efforts and further encourage him to give his all on the diamond. Perhaps your daughter is excelling on her basketball team; encourage her passions by attending a WNBA game with her and share in her love of the game.

Motivating your young athlete means encouraging them to excel in their passion. Keep these tips in mind and make the most of your child or team athlete’s sports career.

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