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Playing for the Love of the Game

by By Maureen R. Weiss, Ph.D
at the University of Virginia
Coaches occupy multiple roles in children’s lives as sport participants. Coaches must
be excellent instructors so that youth learn and improve skills, increase knowledge of
strategies and tactics, and
achieve their goals.
Coaches can also inspire children to
maintain motivation for participating in sport and, in so doing, allow them
opportunities to accrue
such benefits as po
sitive self-esteem, en
joyable experiences,
long-lasting friendships, and a positive attitude toward the value of lifetime physical
activity. In short, coaches
can ensure that youth want to continue their sport
involvement—that is, participate for intrinsic reasons—rather than participate for
primarily external reasons such as feeling obligated to others to continue. How can
coaches maximize their po
sitive impact on youths’ motivation in sport?
Ingredients of children’s motivation in sport
Children participate in sport for multiple reasons, the most prominent among them
developing physical competence
(learning and improving skills),
social acceptance and approval
(be with and make friends, interactions with parents
and coaches), and
enjoying one’s experiences
(having fun, doing something
interesting). Coaches can maintain and prom
ote greater motivation by engaging in
behaviors and structuring practices to m
eet these motivational
needs. The three
main reasons children participate in sport means that coaches should be mindful of
enhancing players’ perceptions
of competence, ensuring posi
tive social in
fluence, and
keeping practices and games fun and en
joyable. These three ingredients of
motivation—perceived competence, social
support, and enjoyment—are necessary
for sustaining children’s "love of the game."
We can depict all the ingredients of motiva
tion in the diagram shown in Figure 1.
This visual shows that coaches, parent
s, and peers (teammates, close friends)
directly influence children’s perceived competence or beliefs about their ability in
sport. Perceptions of competence, in tu
rn, influence feelings of enjoyment and
motivation in the form of intrinsic/extrinsi
c reasons, effort exerted, and persistence
following mistakes. If we hone in on coache
s as the source of so
cial influence, we
can identify specific coaching behaviors
and principles that will maximize the
probability that perceived competence, en
joyment, and motivation will thrive.
Provide optimal challenges
Coaches can satisfy
athletes’ need for
developing and demonstrating physical
competence by carefully matching the difficulty of skills or activities with the child’s
capabilities. I like to think of optimal challenges as ones that
match the activity to
the child, and not the child to the activity
. In short, optimal challenges are those that
are at the cutting edge of a child’s potentia
l. Goals that are too easy are boring and
simplistic; goals that are too difficult are likely to invoke anxiety and fear of failure.
Coaches can ensure optimal challenges by
setting hard but realistic goals for all
participants, outlining developmental skill progressions that allow children to
systematically achieve goals,
and modifying facilities, eq
uipment, or activities to
optimize task difficulty relative to the child’s skill level.
Maximize social support
Acceptance and approval
by adults and peers strongly influence children’s
perceptions of competence, enjoyment,
and motivation. Coac
hes can make an
impact on these elements in several ways.
First, they can provide
frequent and contingent informational feedback
on how to
improve skills. The term
means specific to or directly related to level of
performance. For example, a baseball co
ach might praise a player for executing
correct technique in hitting a ball to the opposite field, and then follow-up with
information on how to get out of the batters
box and up the line to first base more
In response to a skill error, focusing on information for improving on the next
attempt, rather than punishing the error,
is a contingent and effective means of
motivating players to sustain their effort.
The literature clearly shows that frequent,
contingent instruction by the coach to enhance sport skills and strategies sends a
message to players that they have the ability to improve, and this is a motivating
A second means of coaches provid
ing social support is through
contingency and
quality of praise and criticism
. Contingent praise migh
t be our baseball coach
reinforcing a player for making the correct de
cision in response to
a fielder’s choice,
while contingent criticism might be
constructively questioning
a player for
committing a mental error on
a play he/she has mastered many times before.
This latter behavior should suggest to the
athlete that the coach believes he/she has
the ability to do better. This brings us to the term
of praise and criticism
Quality refers to the appropri
ateness of the feedback. Is it
too much or too little? For
what level of performance or task difficulty is it given? The general rule to ensure
quality or appropriate feedback is: (a) do
n’t give excessive praise, (b) don’t give
praise for mediocre performance, and (c) do
n’t give praise for su
ccess at easy tasks
that everybody can do.
Make sure sport experiences are fun
Fun does not have to solely mean pizza
or McDonalds after the game. Enjoyment can
be part of the fabric of practices an
d competitions. Children and adolescents
experience fun when there are opportunities
for high levels of action, personal
involvement in the action, and affirming friendships.
Activities during practice
could be structured to maxi
mize action by eliminating
waiting in line, ensuring sufficient equipment, and keeping things moving with short
but intense and varied activities. Children also enjoy having some input to their
experiences. Although coache
s certainly make up the prac
tice plan and orchestrate
the pace and content of activities, child
ren can be part of
the decision-making
process such as choosing warm-up drills or
an activity at the end of practice.
Providing some opportunity for autonomy tr
anslates to greater fun and enjoyment.
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