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29th June 2011, 9:21am
Competition still has a role to play in school sport
A young football player Pushy parents, controlling coaches and heated rivalries have brought about a decline in competitive sport in many schools – but psychology research to be outlined today suggests competition may still play an important role in children's motivation.

Teachers, parents, coaches and researchers have debated for years which is better for young athletes: a competitive spirit which ‘toughens them up’ or a collaborative activity with no losers which ensures nobody feels left out.

The gradual replacement of traditional sports days with ‘everyone-wins-a-prize’ activity days in many schools has been based on the growing belief that too much competition too early can put youngsters off sport for life.

Now research by sports psychologist Dr Richard Keegan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sport, Coaching and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln, and his colleagues suggests that the reality is far from black-and-white. Where one child might be very upset by criticism, another might thrive off it.

The researchers set out to assess the multitude of coach, parent and team-mate behaviours that young athletes feel impact on their motivation – the so called ‘motivational climate’.  After interviews with nearly 120 young sports performers from various sports and levels, the main message to emerge was: “It depends”.

Using a focus group approach, they found that when one child suggested something was good for motivation, another would say: “Oh, I wouldn’t like that”, or even: “It depends on how it’s said”.

A significant and novel aspect of the studies was the inclusion of under-12s, who have traditionally been overlooked in motivation research as they were thought to be unable to distinguish between effort, ability and luck in determining success.

However, when asked, children as young as seven were quite aware of these issues, and how coaches and parents steered them towards believing that their performance was either a fixed ability (e.g., “That was no good, you’re not suited to this”) or related to effort (e.g., “Not to worry, try again but this time try this…”).

The researchers concluded that while coaches or parents may think nothing of such throwaway comments, young athletes may be very sensitive to them and the impact may be different to what was intended.

Dr Keegan will discuss the findings today (Wednesday 29th June 2011) in a conference at the University of Birmingham. His talk will emphasise the need to avoid ‘magic bullet’ one-size-fits-all rules and instead will advocate use of loose rules-of-thumb for inspiring love of sport in children.

He said: “When talking to young athletes, it seems generally better to stay positive and offer praise wherever possible, and it is easier to do this by focusing on effort and improvement. After all, there can only be one winner so how do you praise the others? But that doesn’t mean that you should only be positive. The children appreciated that mistakes need to be corrected, and that sometimes you need to be on the losing side.
“With obesity levels rising across the western world, and inactive lifestyles being a key contributing factor, this research demonstrates how a wide variety of behaviours from people around the athlete can influence children’s motivation towards sport – not just in childhood, but potentially for the rest of their lives.”

Dr Richard Keegan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sport, Coaching and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln, will present his research findings at the conference, ‘Promoting Healthy Physical Activity Experiences for Healthier Kids’, which will be held at the University of Birmingham on Wednesday 29th June 2011.

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