As parents, it’s hard to watch a child not giving it their all on the field or court. Clearly, kids will have days when they aren’t super motivated, and the younger they are, the more often this happens.
Even as adults, think about your workouts — you have days when you have a lot of energy and other days you have nothing in the tank. When you notice your child consistently not working hard, watching this from the sideline can become an extreme source of frustration for parents.
But before you start screaming ‘run’ at them during every soccer game, as we did with our oldest back in the day, you should consider a few things.
1. Is it age-appropriate?
For kids under the age of 14, it can be difficult to consistently put in max effort. They are kids. If it’s not fun, they may not be interested in giving it their all. This is completely normal. Most will mature and eventually come to a realization on their own that to get better, they need to work harder. Or they might get more competitive and want to win and compete with teammates more.
If they don’t, there is nothing wrong with playing a sport just for fun. Try to avoid yelling at them or discussing it too often, or you may be pushing them towards quitting instead of motivating them.
Even if you get immediate results from yelling, it won’t do anything for their long term motivation.
2. Are there any underlying issues at hand?
One friend spent several soccer seasons getting frustrated at her son for not running hard; come to find out, he had mild asthma. Another would get so impatient when her daughter would goof off during volleyball practice, but it all made sense when she was diagnosed with ADD. She went on to become a fierce competitor after she matured and learned to focus better.
3. Is it the wrong sport?
Just because most kids start in soccer and tee-ball, that doesn’t mean they are the right sports for your child long-term, even if they experience success.
Every child has their own mental and physical makeup and tolerance level. Some kids, no matter what, will never want to tackle another kid, body-check them, or even box them out. And some kids LOVE being physical.
Others may play team sports just for the camaraderie and being social, whereas others dread the social, group aspect of team sports. Running cross country or swimming for hours on end in silence is a much different experience than slapping high fives between every point on the volleyball court or doing cheers from the dugout in softball.
Each sport demands and requires its own unique set of personality traits and characteristics. So, make sure your child’s whole person is best suited for their sport.
4. Are they burnt out?
This can be temporary or long-term. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they only play one sport and that it’s from over-specializing.
Sometimes, kids are just mentally and physically exhausted and don’t even know it.
They are running from school to sports, to extra workouts, to homework and then get up in the morning and do it all over again. Repeated for months at a time, this will take its toll. They will consciously or subconsciously realize they can’t possibly be giving 100% effort in everything all day long. So to self-regulate, they will start to pull back slightly at some of their activities.
This looks like laziness or not being motivated, but it’s really not. If this sounds like your kid, you may need to do some soul-searching and figure out what you can cut out of their busy schedules.
5. Are they afraid to fail?
Well-intentioned parents and coaches can inadvertently kill motivation by overpraising or pressuring kids. Telling them they are smart or athletically-gifted and praising them for things out of their control causes kids to internalize their abilities as fixed and not something they can improve upon. Thereby, they experience struggle as failing, according to research by Carol Dweck.
The subconscious thought process goes: If I’m not trying hard or giving it my all, then I’m not really failing. When the going gets tough, they pull back – thereby, keeping their “gifted” status intact. Kids praised for their effort, on the other hand, view struggles as challenges and another opportunity to overcome or improve upon their last game or practice.
Kids can also be afraid to fail if there is too much pressure on them from parents and coaches. By crossing the line from support to pressure, they strip away the fun by making their child afraid to do something normal and beneficial: fail.
And if they use fear or intimidation tactics on top of the pressure, they may get results in the short term, but it’s toxic in the long run for a child.
Doing something to avoid being yelled at is a much different experience than doing something because it’s enjoyable, exciting, or rewarding.