How to Motivate Your Kids in Youth Sports – A Mom Wants to Know

A Q/A With A Mom Who Wants Coaching on How She Should Motivate Her Twin Son & Daughter:

Dear Dr. Walker,

I have six year old twins, a boy and a girl.  They are both extraordinarily athletic.  My son, especially, seems to excel at every sport he tries, and already has a physique that resembles a professional athlete, as does my daughter.  They are both just solid muscle.  I’m not sure exactly how that happened, but it’s quite amazing.   People regularly comment on it.  Here is the question:  My son has wanted to play hockey for two years.

I finally let him try.  He did two weeks of an intensive summer hockey camp and made a local in-house team.  I paid for the season.   He is very motivated and a great skater and the coaches love him.  But sometimes he waivers, saying he doesn’t want to do it since none of his school friends play.  As you are well aware, hockey is unlike most other sports in that it is SO expensive, and requires a big commitment.  Do you have a suggestion as to how I handle this? What is the best approach?  I think once he starts the season he’ll make friends on the team and love it, but it is very difficult to gauge what his motivation is at this point.  I could probably get a refund now, but not after the season is in full swing.   And I don’t think it would set a good precedent to let him quit in the middle.

Dear Jayni,

Thanks so much for this question.  It is one I have fielded before, so I will share with you how I’ve responded – and – I’m going to plug some other websites and blogs at the end of this posting that do a great job in addressing parents’ concerns.

First off, the “fun factor” is king.  I believe that kids at this age will do well to learn every sport they can, and as Dr. Dan Gould says, “running, jumping, throwing, catching, agility drills, seeing ‘how many you can do?’ games, and those things that enable kids to acquire and practice skills” are “golden.” Yet it is the fun factor of testing our limits, seeing what we can do, and bettering ourselves over and over again that not only makes it interesting – but fun.  It is clear to me, that it is the social ‘uncertainty’ that has your son hesitating.  In short it sounds as if he’s concerned about “fitting in.”  Those familiar with youth sports will tell you that it is the opportunity to play with one’s friends that gets kids into sports in the first place – and playing with your friends is a key component to the “fun factor.”  That being said, now we enter into the ‘chicken or the egg’ part of the question.

You can do a lot to help your son and daughter with the social side.  Watch practice and see how and who your son gravitates toward.  Endeavor to know some of the other parents and arrange a play date outside of hockey that will help the kids grow their friendship.  Even a trip to the ice cream parlor after practice can do the trick…so keep your eyes and ears open.  Also, if the coach hasn’t already done this MAKE SURE the coach “requires” each child to know the names of all of their teammates.  I have been amazed at teams several weeks into a season and the only person who knows every player is the coach or parent manager.  If this simple detail is not taken care of the social structure and team cohesion does not develop as it should.  Just a simple go-round before the first practice identifying ‘who is who’ and whats the most fun part of hockey for “you” can make a big difference.

Now to the core of your question – should you allow him to bail mid-season.  Unless there is something going on around the team that is damaging or hurtful to your child – I say no.  The team will get to know him, learn how to team up with him, and his coach and teammates will end up relying on his contribution.  By setting a precedent that he can bail early into a new experience, he will never learn to buck up and hang in there – and there are dozens of reasons why this is important to him developmentally.  He should be having fun – there is no doubt about that…but…he also needs to learn how to be responsible for ‘making it fun’ both for he and his teammates.



Here is my second question:  my daughter is also really quite good at sports — she is faster than any boy her age — but says she doesn’t want to play ANYTHING.  She excels at everything she tries (ice skating, baseball, swimming, gymnastics).  I am a big fan of team sports for all of the reasons you list on your website.   Should I just let her off the hook, or encourage her (as I have been doing) without forcing her to play??  She is so good, I just can’t quite understand why she doesn’t seem to have any interest.

I guess the real gist of my question is how to assess a child’s motivation at such an early age, and how hard to “encourage” them if they seem to demonstrate some real skill.  Perhaps you could simply recommend some articles for me to read as well.   I do not force my kids to play sports, although we do have a rule of thumb that if they start something, they finish it.

Dear Jayni,

This is a little different situation and yet it does have a tie in to your son’s circumstances.  My sense is that your daughter is not connecting socially as well as she could.  The number one reason most kids love sports is that they get to be with their friends and play together.  Your daughter may be very talented but not connecting socially and if she feels out-of-place – then she will lose the “fun factor.”

I would address her situation a little bit differently.  If she is in school, I’d talk to her teacher – find out who she likes to do things with and what she chooses to do at recess.  She may be more talented that the boys her age, but that doesn’t mean she enjoys competing…with them or anyone.  Sometimes the sports are framed in too competitive a manner.  My friend Dr. Jerry Lynch recorded a Podcast for Podium (Podcast-Dr. Jerry Lynch) that makes a great point…. that is to really appreciate and thank your opponent – for he/she provides you with the opportunity to bring out the best in both of you.  In his book, The Way of the Champion – this concept is beautifully illustrated.  It may be your daughter would do well to pursue collaborative games without competition – building things, campfires – cookouts, projects where everyone comes together for a solution.

Thanks for asking these questions and I hope my answers have been helpful.  There are some fabulous resources for parents in the youth sporting world.  Here are just a few:

Mark Hyman’s Blog

Ask Coach Wolff

Inside Youth Sports

Mom’s Team

National Alliance for Youth Sports

11 thoughts on “How to Motivate Your Kids in Youth Sports – A Mom Wants to Know

  • April 16, 2012 at 5:02 am

    i have an eight yr old son. i dont seem him very much,but i plan on moving to where he lives. i have asked him several times when i have seen him or spoke to him over the phone if he is in any sports and he says no. i would love for him to interact with other boys and like sports to where he would play but how can i get him to like sports?

    • May 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Hi Angela,
      Thanks for writing. Your son is just getting started, and so the key is to get him active and keep him active. The allure of video games is pushing to younger and younger audiences and they are structured with addictive use in mind. Hence, unbelievably compelling. So, that means doing these things with him. Outdoors stuff, modeling the things you’d like to see him get into. YMCA recreation programs, summer camps that are oriented to sports where he’s there much of the day with other kids doing active things. He may not like some of it, but be sure to listen to what is it he “does” like. His feedback may also provide a clue as to personal development areas he needs to work on. For example, he might be a timid guy, not wanting to risk a lot because he’s nervous about putting himself out there. That’s important to know because you can’t build confidence from the sidelines. However, it would be a mistake to not ‘listen’ to his concerns and coach him up on his reservations. But remember, the most important part is to “model” being active and doing things with him. Both you and he will enjoy the activity and grow closer in the process. By gradually incorporating a friend or another family – his interest will grow to where he’s attracted and build his confidence naturally.

  • September 26, 2012 at 11:08 pm


    I have a four year old daughter who loves gymnastics and has just been accepted into pre competitive program. She is excited to go in the morning and loves being with the friends she has made. But then afterwards she says she doesn’t have fun because its too hard. As well I notice during training that she does give up early as its “too hard”. How to I motivate her/help her with this?

    • September 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Chrissy,
      Good question. I’m going to give you a bit of an extended answer and then I’ll send you a reply with a recording to your email address specific to her age and development. For our readers, I want to establish a key point. Your daughter and every other athlete are in control of the 3 most important things in sport. These are PREPARATION, EFFORT & ATTITUDE – (PEA). Since she’s so young, you are probably helping her with each of these to a very large extent. As she gets older these things become paramount. How an athlete trains, whether they establish a good connection with their coaches, and especially how far they can develop their talent are variables they control through their preparation, effort and attitude. Tim Tebow, the former Bronco (now NY Jet) has a quote on his website that says, “Hard work trumps talent….when talent doesn’t work.” I would work with her when things get hard, and encourage her to “stay with it just a little longer… its how you get stronger.” I have a chin up bar outside and I’ll have everyone I work with see how many pull-ups and curl-ups they can do. When they get to where they want to give up – I push them to stay with it – for this is the point where they learn their effort and attitude will advance their training. Thanks for the great question. Like us on Facebook:-)

  • January 28, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Hi all,

    I have somewhat of a similar issue. I have a son who just turned 4 years old. He started skating just shy of his third birthday and has been involved in the Canadian “Timbits” Learn to play program since september. Many may say that is early for skating however it is the norm, at least in this neck of the woods and treated no different than soccer, baseball, lacrosse, swimming or hockey.

    I have been very involved with all the sports and have coached or been part of the coaching staff for all the sports he has played. Hockey is something that I grew up playing, and was very good at, I hope he carries the torch and enjoys the game as much as I do however I’ve noticed some disengagement for lack of a better word.

    Just to be clear I’m not a pushy parent and really try to keep the fun in the game while teaching the technical part of the game and equally among all the kids I work with. The disengagement I’m witnessing is that he plateaus in development very quickly, he excels for 2 or 3 weeks then plateaus, almost as if he has hit a brick wall and does not want to climb it usually when a new technical part is introduced. The learn to play is setup via birth years so he plays with kids born in 2007 and 2008, he was born dec 2008, he is a late baby.

    We generally have a practice on saturday and a game on sunday. He’s been faking injury, he’s been laying on the ice and in some cases just totally doing what he wants to do not listening to any of the four coaches (in later years this will get you benched) which usually means a leisure skate doing some spins or falling on purpose pretending not to be able to complete the technical component, stops, starts, pivots, etc. Past few games he has had zero interest in the puck and generally while out on his shift just skates, nothing else. My concern is the other kids appear to be more engaged and “hungry” to play while he could care less.

    Is this normal at his age, is he displaying signs of boredom, is he scared to try or hurdle something new to him. Is the disparity in kids of his age versus kids almost 6 that much that at a certain point the competitive part kicks in?

    I was very disappointed in his lack of effort the past few weeks, his response to coaches, I’ve even made a rink for him in our backyard to allow him to do whatever he wants, he does not want to play “hockey”, just skate and play tag….

    Am I too concerned or is this just normal attention span for a four year old. I just want the best for him and my daughter and unfortunately with him being the first born my wife and I learn on him as parents and thankfully pass on our experience to his sister.



    • January 29, 2013 at 2:44 am

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the letter. I hope you’ve had a chance to friend us on Facebook because this is just the kind of communication I’m hoping we can create community with. We could probably go back and forth on this situation over a number of things, but I’ll address the basics first.

      First off, lets look at the Canadian system and what that does to December birthdays like your son’s. I really encourage you to pick up a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Outliers”. He actually does a study of major junior hockey and the NHL in looking at the amazing disparity amongst those kids who get opportunity and those who don’t predicated on their birthdates & maturation levels. It is striking. The fact that your four-year-old is mixing it up with those kids that much older can certainly contribute to this his “unusual” behavior (which really isn’t unusual for four years old at all.) Given the norms, a competitive game, and the zealous nature of those engaged in the game of hockey – his “disengagement” behavior could easily be a choice to not try to compete because he may feel the cards are stacked against him. Many would rather act like they don’t care and not try – than try and get pancaked. It’s an ironic self-esteem protection mechanism. Not a new one even for four, but it seems pretty obvious to me.

      I remember the huge difference in age and maturity of those pesky 3rd graders, when I was just a 1st grader. Not a difference at all in college, but still noteworthy in high school. So remember, you’ve got to picture this situation from the eyes of a four-year-old. That alone might explain a lot.

      One other point I’d like to make: Sports at this level MUST FOCUS ON THE FUN-damentals. And I do mean FUN! You remember how the game nurtured you and gave you focus, intention, team comradeship and companionship. It was what you did for fun. Again, try to project yourself into his mind/body and see if you can’t discover where the fun factor is most alive. By touching this nerve, and nurturing it he will come around for all the right reasons. Again, you must keep it all positive because if “he feels like he is letting YOU DOWN” it will make it more about you than about his having fun.

      Finally, I realize its winter in Canada in a lockout shortened NHL season and people are pretty darn hungry about needing their hockey fix – I know I have been. That probably factors into this a little bit too. The point I’d like to make is that basketball may be HIS game – or – LaCrosse. My suggestion is that he play any sport and every sport he wants to until he’s about 14-15 yrs….then begin to specialize (if he wants to). The FUN FACTOR drives everything at this age – and – he won’t be at a maturity level to really train for a sport until he’s an adolescent. So go at his pace – make EVERYTHING FUN in sports and he will learn more, laugh a lot, develop a great joy in getting better (happy to “show you” what he can do), and develop healthy habits for conditioning, fitness and living an active lifestyle.

      Everything beyond that will be icing on the cake – at least until he turns 6:)) Enjoy the ride as a parent, it will be over in a blink.

      Best to you Rob and your family,

  • November 27, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    I came across this post while searching for information on motivating your child in sports. Our son, who is seven and a half, is a very strong skater and seems to have a natural hockey talent. He has been playing in a house league the past few years, and this year was selected for a travel team with kids the same age. The calibre of hickey is quite different from what he has been playing in house, but he can certainly keep up when he wants to. He never complains when he has to go to practice or play with the travel team, but sometimes he just doesn’t have the drive to keep up with the other kids when we know that he can. It’s like he just gives up sometimes when he is on the ice. How can we motivate him to give it his all and work hard all of the time? We know that the talent he has is far greater than what he sometimes delivers.

    • December 5, 2017 at 5:36 am

      Hi Lynn,
      I’d hate to think I had peaked at 7 years of age. Please keep it in perspective. His primary reason for playing is to have fun with his pals. Controlling his effort with any degree of consistency won’t happen developmentally until he’s 12+years. That said, if you can make a game of “full on effort” in “short spurts” with a “prize” he can get excited about, you can begin the process…. but please don’t make it an expectation or a job. That will kill his joy. Big mistake. The thing that you and his dad do need to say to him is this, “I LOVE WATCHING YOU PLAY!” Try picking up John O’Sullivan’s book, Changing the Game – or – check out the Parents Program at the Positive Coaching Alliance – Both really solid sources of information, ideas and helpful tips. Good luck,
      Dr. Walker

  • December 6, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    Hi everyone,

    I know this is an old post but I have a interesting question. My daughter is 12 years old, she is talented gymnast but over the last year she grew a ton both height and weight. She has always been above her class until this year. She is level 7/8, but this year has been tough, with her physical changes she has lost a lot of her skills and it has been hard work to get them back. The difficult thing is she shuts down when the going gets tough and it is hard to watch. She hides from the coaches because she is afraid of failure. I believe she has done so well because of her natural ability and not hard work and now she needs both and it scares her. It is hard for her dad and I to watch, we were both college athletes and know what it takes and that it is not always fun but the reward is fabulous. I want her to not be afraid of failure, to show off everything she has and to not hide in the background. How do I help her through this process?

    • December 12, 2020 at 10:54 pm

      Hi Leslie,
      My name is Alli and I work for Dr. Walker while also currently getting my Masters in Sport and Performance Psychology. After reading your question, I have recommended that he reaches out to you and offer an evaluation assessment if you and your daughter would be interested in that. Failure, perceived or real, requires more attention to help. As for your question, I would guess your daughter’s situation could be a result of negative self-talk which could be limiting her ability to handle failure and excel in gymnastics. In addition to techniques that help reframe negative self-talk, introducing how to have a growth mindset would help her see failure as an opportunity to get better. Also, reminding her that everyone has and will fail throughout their journey could be beneficial. Hope this helps!

    • December 13, 2020 at 1:27 am

      Hi Leslie,
      Thanks for posing such a challenging question. Gymnastics is in and of itself, hugely challenging and when you add in the various aspects of fear factor, fine motor coordination, and mental/emotional abilities to problem solve…. well, in a word, it can be overwhelming. I would encourage you to give me a call and lets discuss this over the phone. I’ve worked with gymnasts at every level up through 10 and collegiate gymnastics, as well. I don’t want to assume anything regarding your daughter and so I would like to actually have a conversation about it. Call 303.931.7074. Thanks.
      Stephen Walker, PhD


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