Structuring Rewards for Athletes in Youth Development Programs


By Dr. Haley Perlus

Athletes First

Why do young athletes participate in sports?  This is a simple question with insurmountable implications for improving youth competitive sport.

Children choose to participate in sport for the following six reasons:

1) to have fun,  2) to learn and improve skills,   3) to be with friends,   4) to be part of a team,   5) to get exercise and stay in shape, and   6) for the challenge and excitement of competition (Gould & Petlichkoff, 1988).   Young athletes do not yet possess the talent, strength, skill, and experience to be elite (Erickson, 1996).  They’re in it purely to enjoy the experience.

From a developmental perspective, there are two justifications for youth competitive sport (Wiggins, 1987): personal development and peak performance. Personal development includes, but is not limited to, positive self-perceptions, long-term motivation to be active and experience new things, ability to cope with anxiety and disappointment, and sportspersonship.

Performance enhancement includes skill development and improvement

To keep young athletes in sport long enough for them to develop these positive qualities and discover their true athletic potential, sport psychologists recommend ……..

…….that youth competitive sports find a balance between individual and competitive rewards (Ames, 1986).

An individual reward structure allows athletes to work toward exerting more effort, learning from their mistakes, and improving their personal best performances. Individual rewards foster a sense of personal control and persuades athletes to bring attention to their skill development.

Conversely, a competitive reward structure highlights the natural urge for social comparison and forces athletes to work against each other for recognition. Competitive rewards encourage athletes to evaluate their ability solely based on performance outcome criteria and to forget about whether or not they improved from last time.

Individual rewards are especially important for children younger than 14 years. Research in developmental psychology (Horn, 1991; Horn & Hasbrook, 1986; 1987; Horn & Weiss, 1991) demonstrates that young athletes between eight and 12 years rely heavily on social comparison criteria and feedback and evaluation from significant adults (e.g. parents and coaches) to measure their success. Individual rewards teach young athletes to become aware of their own skill improvement. In turn, they develop an internal sense of satisfaction, self-efficacy and motivation. At this point, it would be difficult for an athlete to want to do anything but play sports.

It isn’t until about age 14 that athletes use multiple sources of criteria including social comparison, self-improvement, ease of learning new skills, and enjoyment of the activity to measure success. Thus, athletes around the age of 14 are developmentally capable of putting winning and social comparison in perspective and balancing it out with self-improvement.

As young athletes are developing, it is the responsibility of the coaches and parents to emphasize individual improvement rather than highlight the natural tendency to focus on how one young athlete compares to another. In turn, these athletes will exert more effort, persist to improve and learn new skills, and develop a long-term interest to stay in sport. Most importantly, they will be given the opportunity to develop physically and psychologically and realize their true athletic potential.

An Example worth looking at: Competitive Ski Racing

In an effort to create a more enjoyable experience for young athletes and instill positive personal development and performance enhancement, many youth competitive sport programs have modified the typical reward system. Instead of rewarding only the top three males and females in their level of competition, the reward system acknowledges a larger number of athletes (e.g. the top ten males and females).
Although intensions are pure, this reward system could produce the exact opposite effect of what it was designed for. Instead of decreasing the significance of social comparison and winning, the reward system places further emphasis on finish placements. Also, by distributing competitive rewards to a larger group of athletes in an attempt to increase self-efficacy, the youth program runs the risk of instilling unrealistic expectations for future competition. These viewpoints are discussed below.

Emphasis on Social Comparison and Winning

Imagine Jake, a small nine year old racer, who continues to improve his technique, but is not yet capable of placing in the top ten for his age group. To be a good “team player” Jakes is required to stay after each race and watch his peers be recognized for their race results. With a typical reward system, Jake would watch for a short period of time while the bronze, silver, and gold medals are distributed to the three fastest racers. With this new reward system in place, the duration of the ceremony is much longer. Consequently, Jake is conditioned to believe that the results and the competitive rewards make up the main event of the competition.

Picture Tracy, an 11 year old girl, walking to her parent’s car after the reward ceremony. Tracy is now looking around and seeing many athletes holding their reward while she is getting into the car empty-handed. Compared to when only a select few athletes, who finished in the top three, received a reward, Tracy is reminded of how slow she was compared to many of her peers.

In both cases, Jake and Tracy are exposed to a youth sport environment that teaches them the importance of race results and social comparison for measuring success. Due to their inability to earn a competitive reward, Jake and Tracy will develop low self-efficacy and possibly a fear of failure. The end result is an unhappy athlete who no longer enjoys the sport.

Instilling Unrealistic Expectations

Lisa, an early developing and talented 12 year old ski racer, is among the top five fastest girls in every race. Lisa is used to being recognized for skiing fast and she loves the attention and praise she continues to receive from all of the coaches, ski parents, and peers.

What will happen in a few years when Lisa’s peers catch up to her in strength, ability, and speed? It is common for an athlete like Lisa, who received endless recognition for her performance outcomes, to develop high self-efficacy in her sport. Unfortunately, when a top ten placement becomes harder to achieve, Lisa will have difficulty coping with the possibility of not getting a competitive reward. She will then be susceptible to anxiety and emotional exhaustion that could lead to burnout and, in worse cases, dropout.

How to Structure Rewards for Youth Competitive Sport

Winning and social comparison is inevitable in sport. The desire to be the best will never disappear, nor should it. Athletes, young and old, are going to ask themselves if they won and how they compared to their peers. However, we can balance this orientation by emphasizing individual improvement.

It is appropriate for youth competitive sport to include competitive rewards, just as they are included in higher levels of competition. Young athletes do not need to be sheltered from the true nature of competitive sports. Experience with success and defeat will help athletes to develop coping skills they can implement in any life domain.

It is essential, however, for coaches and parents to also provide athletes support for their self-referenced achievement. This support can be verbal (“Jake, your hands were up in front of your body the whole run – way to go”), physical (Tracy’s coach pats her on the back and gives her a smile in the finish area), or tangible (Lisa earns a hat, donated by a sponsor, for demonstrating aggressive effort from the start to the finish line). What is important is that each reward is earned and not just given for the sake of giving. When the reward is meaningful, it will instill self-efficacy in the young athlete, making the overall experience much more enjoyable.

The individual reward structure will also serve to put winning in perspective and define success and failure in terms of personal improvement (Smoll & Smith, 2002). Now, in addition to wanting to know how one person compared to another person, young athletes will be interested to know how they can get better than they were before and what will help them improve from their last performance.

Who is Dr. Haley Perlus?

Haley is a doctor of sport and exercise psychology.  She is an expert at empowering individuals to achieve peak performance.  A former elite athlete, Whistler Cup Alpine Ski Racing Champion, Coach, group fitness instructor, and fitness trainer, Haley has devoted her life to sport and exercise and understands the difficulty of overcoming performance blocks so that people can consistently perform to the best of their ability.  She is an enthusiastic and passionate seminar leader, speaking at numerous conferences, workshops, conventions and trade shows. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs.  Dr. Perlus is available for individual and group mental toughness consultations. To find out more about these programs, email us at [email protected] or call us at (303) 459-4516.

3 thoughts on “Structuring Rewards for Athletes in Youth Development Programs

  • June 16, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Live your life in the present to attain the future that you want. Negative emotions, when given time and energy, will take their toll on some aspect of your life in the future.

  • January 20, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    Hello, constantly i used to check blog posts here in the early hours in the break of day, as i enjoy to find out more and more.

  • February 2, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    How can we get the athlete above 14 in age to recognize his or her rewards? Get the athlete to understand the rewards


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.