By Dr Peter Murphy
Most children and teens need adult help to stay motivated to practice and improve their athletic skills. Research tells us that three conditions are necessary for building this motivation. First, a young athlete must be involved in the decision to participate in a sport they enjoy. Second, the athlete must feel that influential adults they learn from are genuinely invested in their skills development and overall well-being. Third, internal motivation is reinforced as the athlete’s competence increases and their enjoyment of their chosen sport grows.
Consider the analogy of a flower that grows from a planted seed. The seed needs water, sunlight, good soil, and time to become the healthy plant it is meant to be. In a similar way, parents, teachers, and coaches working with children and adolescents are responsible for establishing the optimal conditions for learning, practice, and performance that will spark the internal drive in their students toward mastery.
Mastering the skills necessary for optimal performance requires a process-oriented, long-haul perspective rather than a “quick results” mindset. Our culture places far too much value on quick fixes and immediate results. This mindset has seeped into many of our institutions. For example, schools often emphasize grades over learning. Athletic coaches at the high school, college, and professional levels are hired and fired when their teams do not immediately produce winning records. Young athletes are under tremendous pressure to win competitions in order to increase their chances of being offered college sports scholarships.
Too many young people report feeling overwhelmed with the demands of excelling academically or athletically, especially when they feel the pressure of a results-oriented mindset from the adults around them. Such stress can also erode their confidence and leave them asking themselves whether they want or have what it takes to succeed. When athletes experience this kind of self-doubt, they frequently quit their sport.
Vanessa, a 12-year-old junior golfer, enjoys competing regularly on her local junior tour and on her middle school golf team. Her parents have taken Vanessa to national tournaments, where her performance has been inconsistent. Vanessa is a physically gifted athlete who works closely with a swing instructor. Her parents have invested significant financial resources and time in their daughter’s passion for golf.
Vanessa wants to remain competitive with her peers, but her parents are worried that if Vanessa does not practice more, she will fall behind her fellow competitors, become discouraged, and lose confidence. They would love to see Vanessa be motivated enough to initiate her practice sessions without parental prompting.
Vanessa’s parents continually remind her that competitive 12-year-olds practice 4 to 5 hours daily to improve their games, and she should do the same. Her father frequently goes to the driving range with her to hit balls alongside her. Sometimes this works, but too often Vanessa and her dad argue about her lack of focus during these sessions. These difficult interactions are placing a strain on their relationship.
When I met with Vanessa and her parents, we talked about her struggle with motivation to practice. It is clear that Vanessa wants to play competitive golf, but being a 12-year-old means that she resists practice because it is tedious and she wants to be with her friends. Her 12-year-old brain thinks about what will feel good now rather than considering the big picture. Delaying gratification is a skill that will come with maturation. Also, Vanessa can sense her parents’ anxiety about the gains her competitors have made. These comparisons increase Vanessa’s anxiety and add to her ambivalence about practice.
I explained to Vanessa’s parents that motivation does not increase in a vacuum. Motivation increases in the context of supportive relationships. Sometimes too much family pressure and involvement can lead to conflict and resistance. I suggested that if Vanessa truly wants to improve her play, she should practice with a golf tutor. If Vanessa practices with someone a little older that she looks up to and enjoys spending time with, her resistance to practice will decrease and her motivation is likely to improve.
Vanessa’s parents were able hire a young woman from their local college golf team to practice with their daughter on the range and course three times each week. One benefit of this arrangement was that Vanessa’s father no longer had to oversee her practice. The tension in their relationship decreased, because Vanessa was practicing more, thus reducing her parents’ anxiety about falling behind her peers. Relieving her father from the role of coach also allowed him to just be her dad.
In response to this new arrangement, Vanessa’s motivation for practice was enhanced and this translated into improved play. Vanessa was enjoying the game more, which also added to her internal drive to practice. She noticed the benefits of practice. The comfort that Vanessa had with her golf tutor allowed her to challenge herself more as a player. When I checked in with Vanessa’s parents three months later, they shared that Vanessa had three top-ten finishes and one win in her last five school tournaments. Her school golf coach noticed a positive shift in Vanessa’s attitude and performance, which catapulted her from the 5th position on her team to number 1.
Dr. Peter Murphy is a clinical psychologist with an adult, adolescent and family practice in Tarzana, California. He also provides mental game coaching in association with Dr. Joseph Parent of Zen Golf. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.