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Why do our children play sports?

Have you ever checked in with your sporting children and asked them why they play their sport?

Why should we ask this question? Well there are a number of crucial reasons. If we want to be in a position to support, encourage and motivate our young people then we need to know what motivates them in the first place.

To support effectively we need to ensure that their own motivation, aspirations and dreams match our own. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and can undoubtedly lead to problems further down the line. The importance of having shared goals can never be underestimated.

Certainly, during moments of struggle, potentially when the interest and motivation of children is waning then we need to know why they were playing in the first place. At this stage when we chat with our children knowing what motivates them in the first place can often help them turn the corner. We often advise parents to buy some time in this situation and if their children are thinking of stopping that they at least discuss with them the importance of seeing out the current commitment, whether that be the end of a season or a particular block of time.

We have heard many stories that during this period that their children have then changed their mind, got their mojo back so to speak and have then continued to participate in their sport.

If they don’t get their mojo back there may well come a point when our children may turn around and say, ‘they no longer wish to play the sport’ and that option or conversation should always be on the table for them, we need to make them aware of that.

This is always going to be a tough conversation to handle as parents as we will all think about the joy, the commitment the time and cost that has been invested and perhaps even our own social life and how that may be affected. That can immediately put us on the back foot.

However, if we have been using the sporting experience all along to help equip our children with skills and experiences that they will use to good effect in whichever walk of life they may end up in.

It was interesting learning from two parents at the Bath Rugby Academy recently whose children had turned around and done this to them through another sport. They were involved in Category 1 football academies and their children turned around in their early teenage years and said that they had had enough of the footballing journey.

Both parents acknowledged how tough it was at the time but have now realised that ultimately their children are leading and taking ownership of their own journey. It was great to see these two boys thriving in another sport and that they had not given up sport full stop.

It was also great to hear from the parents who were still in one piece and so grateful for the different opportunities available to their children.

I have just checked in with my two children on why they play their sport whilst writing this piece and after a moment of awkward silence as they thought I was trying to trick them they came up with the following responses; “To be with my friends, having fun and being outside” and “To be with friends and I enjoy the challenge”.

Parents will get a range of responses from their children and their answers may well change at different points during their sporting journey and at different ages.

Responses may include having fun, being with friends, learning new skills, to be fit and healthy, to follow in the footsteps of a role model, to be a professional player and to win. There are plenty of others and we love hearing the responses given by children when parents take the time to ask them this.

The early sporting experience of our young people will often shape these responses and attitudes to this.

The work of Amanda Visek suggests that children play for fun but to complicate matters her research also came up with 82 different definitions of fun. You can see all of the definitions in the image below.

Her most recent work also suggests that both girls and boys are more similar than we think when it comes to their responses.

Many of their reasons for playing are often disconnected from why mum and dad think they are playing.

When we discuss this piece of research with parents they are often surprised at the data and particularly that winning ranks 48th on the list of 82 and playing in a tournament ranks 63rd when children were asked why they play.

I think most adults when pushed and I include myself in this would certainly have these ranked a lot higher in my own mind as to why my children are playing sport.

Fun is certainly very individual, can be defined in many ways and what is perceived as fun can change at different ages during the sporting journey.
Having asked a number of other children why they play, some did say winning. This may well have been shaped by both the coach and parental attitude over the years to that particular child’s early sporting experience.

As educationalists and coaches, it is probably not the response that we particularly want to hear as it suggests that a large emphasis has already been placed on the outcome element rather than the process element of sport. These attitudes are often tough to change. Only through clever conversation and a shift in focus can these attitudes be changed by both coaches and parents and it certainly won’t happen overnight.

However, we certainly should not be critical if that is their response at that given time. Making them aware that the outcome is not the only success criteria is a vital part of the learning process.

The use of the word ‘fun’ in general terms can often sound like there can be no emphasis on competition, winning and the tackling of tough challenges both physically and mentally. However, managed well all of these are key components of the sporting journey.

We need to be careful how we navigate the conversations around this. Sport can be fun and competitive they are not and do not need to be mutually exclusive.

My advice to all of you sports parents is to simply check in on a regular basis, listen to the response of your child and then manage those responses in your context at that given time. Remember to really listen though and shape your conversations and actions around those responses.

We would love to hear from you, let us know what responses you have had from your children and how that has helped you shape the environment around them?

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



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