Last week Dr Kimberley O’Brien spoke to a local magazine about how to help children enjoy sport. We recorded this and would like to share it with you as a podcast and transcript below.
Quirky Kid runs our popular performance psychology program, Power Up!
[00:00:00-00:00:16] Doctor Kimberley O’Brien introduces the challenge of getting children to enjoy sports.
Hi. You’re listening to Dr. Kimberley O’Brien, child psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic. We’re talking today about why kids might dislike school sports, and whether parents should be concerned, as well as how to encourage children to enjoy sports.
[00:00:16-00:02:56] Often children dislike school sports because of negative experiences, such as sensitivity to loud and overwhelming environments, pressure from authorities, perfectionism, discomfort with competitive environments, and lack of exposure to sports as a positive experience.
About why kids might dislike school sports, or sports in general: often it can come from negative experience. It could be that kids could be enrolled, even as toddlers, in some indoor KinderGyms or soccer lessons, that might have lots of noise, whistles, and other kids. If children are sensitive to their environment or have sensory issues, sometimes they can find these environments quite stressful.
Think about what negative experiences kids might have gone through in the past which might impact their perception of sports. Sometimes it’s pressure from parents to participate, or even a negative relationship with a coach, that might put them off the idea of participating in sports.
Other kids might be perfectionists and find it sort of frustrating or embarrassing to try a new skill. When they’re not good at something they refuse to participate, and they just don’t want to fail. Sometimes that can be one reason behind kids not feeling comfortable with team sports.
Another idea could be that they are not comfortable in a competitive environment. In some schools, children do become competitive with sports. Teachers can encourage competition between kids. Thinking about how the child might feel, they may feel inadequate or self-conscious when they’re in a competitive environment.
And another possibility around a child’s negative experience related to sports, could be that parents have had similarly negative experiences with sports. So parents might actually be reluctant to seek out opportunities for kids to participate in sports, just trying to be protective with their children and not wanting to put them in a competitive sports environment. They may avoid sports and maybe favour technology, for example, instead of sports. So when kids get to school, the idea of participating in sports might not be something that they’ve experienced before on a regular basis.
Other well-meaning parents might start off kids in a soccer or nippers type of environment, where there’s lots and lots of kids learning a new skill. And this can also be overwhelming for children.
[00:02:56-00:06:27] When you introduce kids to sports, start small, in low-pressure environments. Respect their resistance, and praise them for their efforts and improvements. It’s also important for parents to build a positive relationship with the trainer and model participation sports. For perfectionist kids, have them study theory online before attempting to physically learn a new skill.
So when you’re thinking about how to introduce kids to sports, here’s some tips on how to do that:
Step one, start with a small environment, a few kids. Think about how to increase their exposure to sports gradually. You might use a soft toy rather than a ball when you’re practicing catching or throwing, at home in a safe setting. Or instead of starting small, you might enroll your child in a one-on-one coaching clinic. For example, tennis, rather than starting with a large group setting like soccer or large team sports.
It’s also really important to build a positive relationship with the coach or trainer. This will help young people to feel safe with that unfamiliar adult, and to boost their motivation to go along on a regular basis. Parents can probably relate to this one when it comes to choosing the right swim teacher for their toddler. If the relationship is really positive between parent and teacher, then often kids will feel safer and be more interested in participating. Having a regular coach or trainer rather than having a different person each week will also help kids to feel more comfortable, more willing to participate.
Another point when it comes to helping kids cope with sports, is to respect their resistance. So if kids are resistant to participating, don’t push them or punish them. Try to praise any improvements that you’ve noticed. “It’s great that I saw you watching the other kids today.” “I noticed you were listening to the instructor today.” Just highlighting the positives rather than letting them know what they’re not doing.
It might also be worthwhile to shop around and find an environment that suits you and your child. It could be that something more open. For example, circus skills with a free trial lesson might make you and your young person feel more comfortable, rather than paying in advance for a full term and then increasing the pressure on participating week after week.
Parents are also encouraged to model participation sports. That could just be playing beach soccer or backyard cricket. Leading by example will help young people also want to participate. Sometimes just laughter will help to lighten the mood when it comes to participating in sports, but adults should keep in mind that it’s good to laugh when adults are playing sports, but not so much when a child’s learning a new skill. Try and refrain from laughing if they’re struggling with a new skill, because kids might become self-conscious.
For those kids that I mentioned before, that may be perfectionists and prefer to not participate until they’re good at a particular skill – these kids often benefit from doing online tutorials before they even practically participate. Lots of theory and following instructions online can make kids feel comfortable enough to attempt to ride a bike or attempt to serve a tennis ball. So keep that in mind as well.
[00:06:27-00:08:35] Performance psychology offers a few tips on how to help kids enjoy sports. Let them choose their sport, give them breaks, point out their improvements, and praise them for trying. Make sure that they’re doing sports in a low-pressure environment that praises effort over results. Get them to score how much effort they put into their sport on a weekly basis, and hopefully you will see improvement over time as they get more comfortable.
Now just finishing up: I’m going to take you through final tips to help kids, teachers, and parents, and help kids to enjoy sports more. All this information is linked to performance psychology. We know that Olympians often use performance psychology such as goal-setting, arousal regulation, and positive self-talk to help them get the best out of their sporting performance. You can find out more about this in our “Power Up” program which is the only performance psychology program for children, developed by Quirky Kid. So if you want to find out more, have a look at “Power Up” on the quirkykid.com.au website.
So these final tips are: let your child choose their sport. Having more choice will increase participation and motivation. Number two, give them regular breaks. Number three, point out their improvements, not their problems with the new skills. Number four, praise your kids for trying. It’s really important to be mindful of the environment in which they’re learning that new sport or participating in sports. So if there’s competition or a coach putting pressure or putting down students that are not reaching the results that they would like, remember to look for a new environment that praises effort over results. And last but not least, ask kids to score themselves in terms of effort. That might give them a 6/10 for the first week, and then get them to monitor their effort week after week. Over time I would hope that as they feel more comfortable in the environment, they are more likely to want to go back and continue practicing that new sport.
All right, I hope you’ve enjoyed that little session about kids and sports. And keep in touch! I’m Kimberley O’Brien from the Quirky Kid Clinic. Thanks for listening.