How to Motivate Your Athlete

Success in any area of life requires motivation. Nowhere is this more relevant than in sports. As the parent of an aspiring young athlete, it’s frustrating to see your child benched too long or playing below their potential. Still, you may be unsure how to motivate your child to be the best they can be.

There’s no magic pill to instill motivation, but there are more efficient ways to push your child to put more effort into an activity. Here are some helpful tips, depending on your child’s personality and desire level.

Understand the 2 Types of Motivation

Athletes can be motivated in two ways—intrinsically and extrinsically. An athlete who plays because they love the game and revel in personal improvement is intrinsically motivated. In comparison, a player who enjoys receiving praise and winning trophies is extrinsically motivated.

Chances are your child is motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic sources, but the goal is to find out what motivates your child the most. You might be able to pick up on this by watching for non-verbal cues. However, the fastest way to get to the bottom of it is to ask your young athlete the right questions, such as:

  • What do you hope to get out of playing your sport?
  • As an athlete, what is your long-term goal?
  • What makes you want to work harder?

When your child answers, really listen. Then, respect their responses, even if you don’t like them. Allowing your child to identify and internalize their own desires builds confidence and may motivate them to be better.

Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself if your child lacks the motivation to excel in something. Your young athlete’s performance is not a reflection of your parenting skills. If you notice a lack of motivation, it could be because your child is discouraged or not enjoying the sport. Once you understand this, you can begin pushing your child to excel in positive ways based on what specifically motivates them.

Explain the Why

Practice drills may become monotonous for young athletes, causing motivation to drop. Don’t assume your child understands why practice is important—instead, explain how the drill can make them a better athlete. Once you do, you’ll find it easier to point out how your child’s hard work has paid off down the road. Seeing the positive results of their actions motivates athletes to work harder, even when practice feels repetitive.

Promote Friendships & Healthy Competition

Humans are hardwired to seek out relationships and have positive interactions with others. Participating in sports forms a connection that can encourage individual players to do their best for the benefit of their teammates. The drive to not let the team down can be a significant extrinsic motivator.

Healthy competition can also motivate young athletes. Your child may be intrinsically motivated by the desire to be better than the opposite team or another player. Parents must remember to encourage healthy competition, and not allow being better than others to become their athlete’s sole focus. Though competition can be a key motivator, it can result in overly competitive and negative behavior if it is the only motivator. 

Praise Successes, No Matter How Small

Young athletes want to have fun and feel successful in their chosen sport. Because of this, losses and setbacks can be highly discouraging. This is why it’s so important to point out the improvements you see, no matter how small, rather than focusing on how to fix mistakes.

Your child is probably already beating themselves up about striking out or missing the basket. Rather than pouring salt on the wound, praise their efforts or recognize their improved form. By bringing small successes to light that your athlete may overlook, you keep them striving for more. This feedback also helps prevent the negatives from outweighing the positives, an important factor for staying motivated.

Set Achievable Goals

Having something to work toward can be a tremendous motivator. Still, setting lofty goals can backfire if the athlete can’t achieve them. That’s why measurable, step-by-step objectives work best.

Sit down with your child and ask them about a goal that they want to reach. If they say something like, “Become a professional baseball player,” ask them to take a step back. Help them think of short-term goals that measure personal improvement in certain aspects of the sport, keeping in mind that statistical or win-based goals may be less effective. Goals can also relate to things like attendance, drill performance, and teamwork.

Role Models

Odds are your child has a role model that they look up to in the sports world. Encourage them to memorize a quote from their favorite player that they can turn to when they need a pick-me-up after a long practice or discouraging game. Consider printing the quote on a poster and hanging it in a prominent location where your child will see it often. Having a role model is important for kids, it allows them to believe in themselves and have the confidence to achieve their goals. 

Remind Them How Proud You Are

As a parent, you are probably the most influential extrinsic motivating factor in your child’s life. Choose your words wisely to uplift them and encourage them to succeed. This means telling your athlete that they’re awesome and you love them no matter what.

First, attend as many practices and games as possible to convey your support. Then, tell your child how proud and impressed you are, even if they didn’t win the game or play their best. Make sure your words of encouragement are realistic and heartfelt. Remember, this type of positive reinforcement is a far better motivating method than comparing, bribing, shaming, or nagging. Support from loved ones encourages your young athlete to never give up, no matter how hard it is to reach their goals. 

Sign Up Your Child for Youth Sports

Ready to find the right league for your young athlete? i9 Sports® is the nation’s fastest-growing youth sports league franchise, offering sports like flag football, soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, and more. Our one-day-a-week classes focus on age-appropriate instruction, good sportsmanship, and convenience for busy families. It’s The Way Youth Sports Should Be®!

To learn more, please browse our programs or contact your local i9 Sports® office today.

Little girl on a basketball court jumping in the air to high five her coach.