We live in a society of convenience. Cell phones are disposable, computers work at light speed, everything needs to be fast and expendable. Even in healthcare, there is a pill for everything! Unfortunately, this mentality has tainted athletes' development. I have seen young athletes being pushed to win to a point of verbal abuse. This kind of behaviours favours athletes dropout, sport injuries and even burnout. Thankfully for my profession, there is still no pill that makes you stronger or more efficient. Performance comes from good work ethic and motivation to improve.
New York Times recently published an article about American ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin. At 17 years old, she is second youngest USSA athlete to win a world cup race. The article is about how her well rounded development made her into a champion. I was pleasantly surprised to find a story not about parents pressuring and overworking their children, instead I read about supportive parents and a well rounded childhood. The Shiffrin children learned that one of the most important things to be successful in sport and in life is a good work ethic. To quote Eileen (Mikaela's mom) :“It was 90 degrees and she was 10 years old and she worked so hard without complaining. So she’s a good ski racer because she did all kinds of different developmental things — like learning a good work ethic — but none of them were part of a plan to make a world champion.”
Mikaela's parents focused on having their children developing essential skill for life through sport. Through support and encouraging their children to practice various sports and activities (outside of skiing), Mikaela and her brother learned motor control more efficently (unicycle riding) and were able to develop their work ethic (doing house maintenance work). They was no magic formula, they fostered a very important condition to success : Motivation. Intrinsic Motivation Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) illustrated below:
(Deci & Ryan, 2000)
For example, if you say to yourself "I have to do the dishes" your motivation is Extrinsic, you are experiencing Introjected Regulation. Knowing the consequences of not doing the task, you "have to" do it but perceive it as a "punishment". If you're doing the dishes because you're getting paid to do it, there is external motivation. You are receiving an external reward. This theoretical model illustrate separate levels of motivation which should to be seen as a continuum. Practicing an activity regularly and having a positive experience as well as receiving positive feedback, may entail internal motivation (Identified, Integrated and Intrinsic). These levels of motivation are an essential part of what it takes to become an expert in any domain. Having Mikaela say “I will want to win. But the result of the race will not motivate me. I can honestly say that I am motivated by improvement, not results. That’s a core principle.” is a sign that she is Intrinsically motivated, not only to do her sport, but to improve in it.
In order to help young athletes become motivated, parents and coaches should focus on 3 elements to help increase motivation : Competency, Autonomy and Belonging. Helping turn focus to the child's strengths or on one particular skill in his sport for example. This will help foster their motivation to practice that particular sport. Being more intrinsically motivated will help them focus on making regular progress and strive for improvement. As John Wooden said "Seek small improvements on day at a time. That's the only way it happens - and when it happens, it lasts."