When our children start on their sporting journeys, they will be introduced to different sports and environments based on a number of factors. This could be through sports and activities they do at school, what local clubs we have near to where we live, what we were involved in and played as parents and perhaps friends who invite them to a sport that they are enjoying.
Initially, children do not get that much choice in the sports and activities that they participate in, unless it becomes very clear that they really do not enjoy something, in which case most of us will look to find something else for them no matter how personally disappointed we may be.
The reality in most cases is that younger children will be led and guided by us as their parents and will go along with what we say and suggest.
Yet in sporting circles around the world, we are recognising the importance and need of giving our children a voice in the process, if we want to get technical, some autonomy in their sporting experience. ‘Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their own behaviours and goals.’
This is one of the three key strands of self-determination theory. Self-determination allows people to feel that they have control over their choices and lives. It also has an impact on motivation – people feel more motivated to take action when they feel that what they do will have an effect on the outcome.
This sounds incredibly complicated when relating to younger children in sport, however it simply means giving them a ‘choice and a voice.’
As parents we need to understand what it is that is motivating our children to participate in sport, it can be very different to what we think is motivating them, so ask them the question, why do you play kid?
This will allow us to make positive and healthy choices in helping to support and motivate them. We also need to try and ask them open questions regularly about their sporting experience.
This allows them to reflect and share how they feel about the sporting experience through their eyes.
Alongside some of the questions above it is also important that we get to understand how they are feeling about the sporting experience and that they are able to communicate that with us either verbally or using amazing tools like the emotional wheel below.
If we can encourage our children to use words from the outside of the wheel it means we can be more specific and better able to help them find a solution. Children can be very good at answering using words from the centre of the wheel which does not always give us the information that we need to be able to best support them.
Without, these conversations we can continue as parents down a particular path, believing our children are really enjoying something, that they want to be playing something as much as we want them to be and potentially limiting their opportunity to try something different and potentially have a lot more fun.
We know that children play sport because it is ‘fun’ and they feel they have a choice, feel part of something and feel competent in what they are doing.
If we are not aware of these things in the early stages of the sporting journey no matter how successful our children may be at a particular sport, we may well be setting them up to leave sport as they get older and particularly as the research tells us dropping out in their teenage years.
As our children go through puberty and start making the transition towards adulthood, we can often go in our children’s minds from knowing everything, to knowing absolutely nothing about the world or their sport. This is a far cry from those early sporting experiences when they would often be hooked on every word that we say.
This can be a difficult time for us as parents when our children want to spend more time with their friends than us, we see our own influence wane and they look to make their own choices about everything under the sun.
Which shows the importance of us getting it right in the early stages of their sporting journey so that they continue their love of sport and physical activity through their teenage years and into adulthood.
None of us have a ‘Crystal Ball’ to tell us what our children may become, what choices they may make, but what we do know is that if they do not have a ‘choice and a voice’ in their sporting experience or do not find the environments fun and engaging, there will be a little chance of them continuing.
I am sure that this is not what any of us would want so never underestimate the importance of being self-aware, your importance as a vital cog in the wheel and understanding some of these key components to try to ensure your children have a healthy relationship with sport and physical activity that lasts a lifetime.
• Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit www.parentsinsport.co.uk.