Competitive sport puts off children

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Considering the BBC news story on this today, one would think that this is a new finding. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Research going back before the 1990s has consistently found that the majority of children are either discouraged to participate in sport by a competitive focus, or are indifferent to it. This new research, by the cricket charity Chance to Shine and the MCC, shows that children do not generally play sport because they are desperate to compete, learn how to win and lose, or build ‘character’. In fact, it is always adults that seem to think that competition is the be-all and end-all. Politicians seem to think it will cause children to become successful adults in the competitive market which is the economy. Parents too often think that pushing their children into competitions will make them succeed in life, and they enjoy watching sport. However, the truth is that people who participate in activities (sporting or otherwise) for the sake of simple enjoyment (this is called ‘intrinsic motivation’), are much more likely to continue to participate long-term, and ironically, pursue competitive involvement.

We would do much better in school sport, education, and almost everything else in this world, if we focused more on those things that fulfilled our basic psychological needs. These are:

  • autonomy — being able to choose what we do (not often the case at school);
  • competence — being able to demonstrate that we are good at things (diminished for many by a strong competitive focus); and
  • relatedness — being able to form social connections to people and environments that we feel are part of who we are.

If school sport and education focused on finding things that truly motivated their pupils, then we would have far more engaged pupils and engaged teachers. We might even find that we have a happier, more fulfilled, more active and more successful population in future.

For more on this kind of thing, see my posts here, here and here. Also, do a Google search on the theory of motivation: self-determination theory.