Comparing in Youth Sports

By Dean Herbert

This is the first in a series of articles on motivation and youth. The information is based on actual surveys of youth athletes as well as the sports psychology studies.

There are four critical understandings to motivation.

1.      Motivation is a complex construct (no single approach addresses all aspects of motivation).

2.      Motivation is highly individual (no single approach works for everyone).

3.      Motivation comes from within not externally (you cannot generate it in someone who doesn’t have it).

4.      The only thing parents and coaches can do is establish an environment conducive to an athlete accessing their motivation.

In an effort to motivate athletes parents and coaches often think that a comparison will be a carrot that will help youth achieve great performances. A common approach to motivating youth is to compare or set up rivalries between youth – sometimes on their own team. Unfortunately the majority of the population of any age is not motivated in this way.

Statements comparing one youth to another whether directly or indirectly do not serve to motivate our youth athletes and in fact DE-motivate most. You don’t have to believe me, these comments come directly from surveys I’ve done with youth runners.

“That girl doesn’t even have good form and she’s beating you.”

“Why can’t you just be like Cassie?”

“If Taylor is in the lead group then so should you.”

“Amy (you) you have to beat Carrie (teammate)”; then to Carrie behind your back: “Carrie you have to beat Amy.”

“You’re supposed to be up with Billy.”

“There is no reason you can’t beat Sam.”

“Make sure you beat Anthony.”

“I can’t believe you let that boy catch you.”

Why it Doesn’t Work
Peer pressure and social comparison are extremely high in youth. Kids want to fit in. They do not want to be different (and if they do it has to be on their own terms). They do want to be themselves but they are most often still in search of who that really is. In the process they will recognize the things they don’t want to be before things they do want.

The other issue with comparisons is that the athlete does not control the outcome. Why? They do not control the other athlete. What if the compared-to athlete has a great day? What if they are truly genetically physically superior or more talented? What if they have had hormone changes that are yet to occur in himself or herself? There are too many variables and the youth athlete does not have control over them which is a key element in motivation, goal setting and feelings of self-efficacy.

An athlete controls only their effort, their attitude, their race tactics, their mindset. They do not control the competition (others), the rest of the team, the weather, the course layout, parents or coaches. The most effective strategies are to keep athletes focused on what they control. In the end, it will optimize their chances of achieving their best performances.

Dean Hebert M.Ed. MGCP is a certified mental games coach specializing in youth athletes and youth coaches. He has authored several books and hundreds of articles. He works with individuals, teams and coaches in all sports as well as performs guest speaking engagements on mental toughness.

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