What are the best gifts for a young athlete?

Mom, is this day Christmas yet? Mom, can you add Applejack (or the name of another My Little Pony – how many are there anyway?!) to my list for Santa? Mom, does Santa know we’ll be in Montreal for Christmas so he will bring the presents to the right place? Zoe is only 4 but I’ve realized the time has come as parents to seriously go to battle on the war on toys!

I was in Toys R Us the other day and was completely overwhelmed by the number and selection of Christmas present possibilities. With our goal to keep the present number down this year for the kids, I made a few select purchases and got out of there before anything else could entice me to buy it! Once you have kids, it is easy to want to indulge them with things you didn’t have growing up, with things that remind you of your childhood, or because you want them to have it all and have every opportunity there is out there….but can wanting to, and subsequently acting on the desire to give them everything be a bad thing or have potential negative consequences?

How much to give to a young athlete is also a conversation I had with a friend while snowshoeing the other day. Can too many “gifts” or “support” in the form of training and competition opportunities and equipment etc ever backfire for the young developing athlete? Many parents face these dilemmas…here are my two cents worth from personal experience and my background in the science of motivation….

1. Go easy on the external motivators! Contrary to popular belief, rewarding athletes for performance will undermine their intrinsic motivation, motives of fun, satisfaction, and doing activities simply for the pleasure of doing them! I had a friend who told me that while growing up her mom bought her gifts every time she had a good race result. She admitted that it wasn’t the best thing and that she never really enjoyed her sport. The only reason she continued it through college was due to a scholarship. The nature of competitive sports is already full of plenty of extrinsic motivators, awards, medals, prize money, glory, recognition, or making a team. The best “carrots” parents can give their children is encouragement to follow their interests.

2. Avoid gifts that may increase guilt-related motivation. I worked with one athlete who stated he felt he needed to perform because he had all the best and most expensive equipment bought for him by his parents. There is a time and place to worry about having the best equipment such as when athletes reach the level of earning some sponsorship, or are at the very top level where physical abilities are much tighter. Giving athletes equipment and opportunities too early, such as before they’ve learned the value of hard work, persistence, and commitment to goals, can undermine motivation, and lead to the false belief that the best equipment, coach, training camp, team etc can buy performance.  Lance was right about one thing – “It’s not about the bike!”

3. Be the best parent, not another coach! Although with good intentions, I’ve witnessed many parents being overly involved and anxious with their children’s athletic involvement and performances. Aggressive screaming from the sidelines, overanalysing and breaking down a child’s performance in front of them, or always asking “Did you win?!” are not the productive ways to encourage healthy involvement in sport. If a parent consciously or even subconsciously treats a child differently depending on performance and results, the message will be clear – I have to perform for your approval and love. Instead, showing interest with open-ended questions that focus on the process – “How did it go?”, “What went well today?”, or “What did you enjoy most/least about your experience today?” are more supportive without judgment.

4. Gifts of exposure, choice, and responsibility. There are so many sports and activities a young child can be involved in these days, and often we hear talk of over scheduling children to the point of lacking any time for good old-fashioned free play. While every family has to figure out that balance – giving children the choice to try different activities is a great start. Great athletes develop from the perfect blend of nurture, parents showing and providing opportunities to experience various sports, and nature, the child developing an interest to pursue something. Motivation and interest continue to flourish when a child feels autonomous in what they are doing. In other words, participating in something that is their own choice. At certain ages, children can choose the activities they enjoy and/or they can choose the level of commitment. In relation to point number two, at an older age they can also learn responsibility and ownership by saving money to help pay for various expenses in their sport. For example, one mom I know had a teenage son who wanted a really expensive mountain bike. She made him the deal that if he saved for half of the amount, she would pay the other half.

5. Your personal time and genuine interest. As an adult looking back at my childhood involvement in soccer, running, basketball, and volleyball, I think the greatest gift my parents ever gave me was their genuine interest in what I was doing. They took the time to understand every sport and understood the meaning of a bad or a good workout/competition result. They also spent time as spectators, chaperoning and participating alongside us – I have fond memories of weekend family runs and cross-country ski days up the mountain.

Zoe's first bike on her 1st birthday, which she preferred to drop and run away from! Nico is showing more interest in it!!

One thought on “What are the best gifts for a young athlete?

  1. Great tips! I agree but add that starting kids on heavy or old equipment can also ruin further enjoyment of the sport (bikes too big or heavy, skis not tuned, boots too large or small). It doesn’t have to be the best but it should help them to enjoy the sport.

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