Intrinsic motivaton:“engaging in an activity for itself and for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from participation” (Vallerand, 2004)

“Why do you do what you do?”  This is the sort of question that Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams would  ask a young athlete.

What if we adults ask the same question to our children?  Or ask ourselves “why do they do what they do?”

 Before a child commits to any form of play they need to enjoy the experience. Child initiated play tends to have its own sense of time. They can choose to stop when they want. The question is, in a society that tends to wrap its children up in cotton wool, do we encourage it enough? Even in free play the child embraces struggle and mistakes as there is no particular planned goal or indeed even purpose. The child finds his/her own challenge point as it plays, creating their own safe to fail environment. Play aids the development of fundamental movement skills and prepares the child for future sport activities by optimising the potential of the child’s physical literacy. This can contribute to increased selfesteem, social inclusion and minimises the risk of obesity.

Child initiated play develops vital physical, social and cognitive skills. It is fuelled by pleasure and done for its own sake.

Let’s compare this to a recent conversation I had with Sports Scientist Mark Upton. The topic we discussed was that many parents feel that children are spending  far too much time sitting down playing computer games and are not out playing like “normal” children. A common soundbyte  is that – we need to motivate them so that they do something else like playing football instead of just playing with their computers.

How do we motivate them? Maybe the key to this is understanding why so many children around  the world prefer to play soccer games on their computer than actually physically experiencing the game itself. There is a certain “rights of passage” with computer games that appeal to the very nature of the child. The right to fail and the right to struggle. No pressure with time while learning at their own pace. Feedback is immediate, progress is transparent and the satisfaction gained from overcoming this struggle cannot be underestimated. The focus is on personal development. The child becomes the protagonist of its own learning and development. This creates intrinsic motivation. This is the type of motivation that many parents and coaches need to comprehend if they want their children to develop a life-long attachment to a sport or indeed many sports. 

Do not underestimate the power of a child seeing himself/ herself get better at something. It is very motivating.

As Mark Upton said to me with regard to computer games.  “A safe to fail environment where mistakes and struggle are not judged either because the player is the only person involved or other players are more worried about their personal development than judging others”.

With computer games the child fails more often than he/she succeeds. But there is no adult standing over their shoulder giving instructions telling them what they should be doing or how they can do it better. The experience is still playful. How a task is completed is intrinsically motivated.

The child’s movement from a playful environment to a coach/adult lead environment is getting more and more blurred. It seems to begin at a younger age and minimises the deliberate play experience. The expectation that is forced upon children in the early selection process that dominates many early elite sports programs promotes the notion that failure is unacceptable. This environment encourages early competition among children with uneven levels of skill instead of placing a focus on personal development.  Here success is often judged on the reaction of others. Participation is less about personal satisfaction and is more due to the presence of a coach/adult. It is extrinsically motivated.

Learning a sport takes time. It is a non- linear process requiring a solid foundation that will allow the development of the intrinsic motivation required to maximise potential and for a lifelong involvement in sport. It is indeed pointless to impose the adult game with its adult values and conditions on children. We should not rush it. We should embrace all learning opportunities, failure, struggle, trial and error.

 Through play we turn failure into learning.


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