When I was growing up, one of my teammates used to get $20 for scoring a goal, and $10 for an assist. That kind of cash is crazy high for a 12-year-old boy. However, that kind of cash is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the amount of money is. Any kind of monetary reward for youth athletic performance needs to stop.
This means cash, candy, or trips to an amusement park. Adults need to stop using any such reward for the sporting achievements of their children.
We all want to motivate our players and kids to do their best and play the game well. It can often be a struggle to figure out how to best do this. Many parents (and sometimes coaches) find themselves paying kids for their performance. This method is highly ineffective and potentially damaging to the development of children.
First, let’s understand why people do this. Most of the time, it is to reward their kids for their accomplishments. It is a means of motivation. We want to motivate our children to do well, so we offer them incentives and rewards for outstanding achievements.
This practice does far more harm than good.
Motivation is the driving force behind why people take certain actions. When it comes to motivating, we need to be aware of two things: 1. What we are praising, and 2. How we are praising. Each of these factors makes an impact on developing how children are motivated in the long-term.
What Are We Praising?
Most of the time, we find that parents who pay their kids for performance pay for goals and/or assists. If they are goalkeepers, maybe they get paid for making saves. What are we telling our players by paying for these?
We are telling them that these things – and only these things - are important.
Sure, we can talk to them all day about how we care more about their effort and learning than the score, but our actions are telling them otherwise. We are rewarding goals (or the prevention goals). That tells the kids that these are the most important. Teams that lose are doing poorly, and kids who do not score are not good players. This causes children to not care about or focus on improving skills or style of play, and it drains the motivation out of kids who do not accomplish these specific tasks.
I once had a parent of one of my players begin to understand this. He decided to start paying his daughter for doing the skills and moves we had been learning. This is great, right? Now she will learn that executing skills is important, not just scoring.
How Are We Praising?
The problem with this parent’s approach is that he was still using money as a reward. What does this tell our players? It tells them that they should want to do well so that they receive some sort of external reward. It does not teach them to do their best for the sake of being the best they can be.
This is a recipe for mediocrity and long-term failure.
Extrinsic motivation, or motivation derived externally, does not result in long-term success. Extrinsic motivation is not truly motivation to do well. It is motivation to get rewarded. It does not last long, and results in the need for continuously increasing stakes.
Pretend someone works at a coffee shop but does not like it and/or does not care about doing a good job. The only reason this person does the job is for the money and free coffee during his breaks. At first, this person works relatively hard and does his best. He is loving the pay check and free caffeine. After six months, however, he becomes used to the pay and the coffee - they have become part of his daily routine and he now expects them. The employee begins to get lazy and avoids doing his best work. He even makes excuses not to go to work some days. The money and coffee are no longer enough to motivate him to do well. Will anything get him to start doing better? He is offered a pay bonus to start working harder. This works! He begins to work like he did when he first started. However, now the company has to pay more money for the same kind of performance he was giving at the beginning. They are paying more for nothing. And eventually – just like before – that bonus will no longer be enough to motivate him, and the company will need to give out more extrinsic rewards to get an average performance from the employee.
The same goes for our players. If they are only motivated by external factors, their desire to do well and improve will eventually die, leaving us with no choice but to increase the reward (and even this will eventually stop working).
The only thing that truly motivates athletes to do their best every day and for the entirety of their playing career is intrinsic motivation, or motivation derived from within themselves. Players need to have a desire to be the best they can be and want to do better for the sake of being better. This is the only thing that will keep them motivated in the long-term. It also motivates them to a greater extent than external rewards.
As coaches and parents, we need to help our kids develop intrinsic motivation to continuously do their best.
How Do We Develop Intrinsic Motivation?
First, we need to determine what we want to praise. In order for players to learn the value of wanting to be the best they can be, we need to praise effort and ideas more than anything else.
Kids will inevitably make mistakes. It is part of the learning process. But just because a child makes a mistake does not mean he is doing poorly. We must praise the idea or the attempt to do the right thing. This will help motivate him to try again the next time, and when he finally gets it right, he will learn that doing his best to improve and learn, as well as persevering despite initially failing, results in eventual and long-term success. He learns the value of doing his best, and he begins to enjoy the process of learning and competing.
Once we know what we want to praise, we need to know how to praise. When it comes down to it, all children really want is the approval and love of the adults in their lives. Simply by using positive reinforcement, kids begin to learn what is important and what is not. As adults, we must recognize when they do or try the right things, then praise them with “Great idea!” or “I love how hard you are trying!”
This teaches kids a love of getting better and trying their best, as opposed to a love of external rewards - or worse - a fear of making mistakes.
Furthermore, as parents, if all we do is tell our children that we enjoy watching them play and do their best, they will learn to enjoy the process of playing and learning. All they need is acknowledgement of their efforts and to know that we support them in what they do. This type of reassurance has much greater impact than any amount of money ever will.