Inspiring Passion in Youth Athletes: What Every Parent Should Know
Inspiring Passion in Youth Athletes: What Every Parent Should Know. Parents often ask if there’s anything they can do to help their athlete become more passionate. The answer is complicated; I will explain more later. But the good news is that you don’t have to be passionate to be good at something and enjoy it.
What Is Passion In Sports
Passion, in general, can be defined as a strong inclination for a self-defining activity that is meaningful and important to the self and in which people invest a considerable amount of time (Vallerand, 2015; Vallerand et al., 2003) or as a strong motivational force toward the beloved activity. In sports, that might look like a deep, enduring love, often characterized by a commitment to training, a desire to excel, and a resilient spirit in the face of adversity.
Athletes with a high level of passion typically derive immense satisfaction and fulfillment from their sport, which can lead them to extraordinary achievements. Think Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, and Kobe Bryant. In youth athletes, it might manifest as constantly wanting to play and practice, watching college and professional games, continually having a ball in their hand, thinking about and talking about sports often, and being obsessed with everything about that sport.
Can my kid play for fun and still compete at a high level?
While passion and enjoyment are interconnected, they serve distinct roles. Enjoyment is the immediate pleasure derived from an activity, characterized by feelings of happiness and satisfaction in the moment. It often lacks the intensity and long-term commitment associated with passion. In contrast, passion involves a profound, enduring desire to engage in an activity or pursuit, often accompanied by a willingness to invest significant time and effort. A passionate individual enjoys and deeply values the activity, consistently seeking to improve and excel, even in the face of challenges and setbacks.
Athletes can succeed in sports and have a great experience without being passionate about their sport – although it might take more effort since they don’t have that burning desire to play. Many even go on to play in college and at the professional level. Still, an athlete not passionate about their sport may not be truly fulfilled while playing.
Can you make your child passionate about sports?
No parent, coach, or friend can ‘make’ an athlete passionate about something they aren’t. So, the parents who continue to press, push, and cajole your child into loving a sport should save their time and energy. You can’t make someone fall in love with a sport and become passionate about it even if they are exceptional at it. Passion comes from within, period. But parents do play an important role in finding, growing, and nurturing a passion or squashing it. Keep reading.
Parents can play a significant role in helping kids find their passion.
Expose your kids to everything. Encourage them to try different sports and activities often. Don’t get stuck on the first sport you signed them up for at age five or one they happen to be good at. Help them discover what they are passionate about. Talk to them about their goals, ask them what THEY want to do and where they see themselves in the future. Ask them what they are doing when they lose track of time. If nothing comes up for them yet, keep taking them out into the world to try and see new things, or if you don’t have the time and money, YouTube has information and videos on thousands of activities, jobs, and special interests. Most importantly, have honest and open communication; they may love coding, art, or theater and haven’t had time to try it because of sports.
Passionate athletes will be happier and more successful than their counterparts.
Research has shown that our brain’s reward system plays a critical role in the experience of passion. When we engage in activities that we are passionate about, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. This reinforces the behavior and creates a positive feedback loop, making us want to continue pursuing our passion. Additional studies have also found that individuals passionate about their pursuits tend to experience higher levels of flow – a state of complete absorption and immersion in an activity where time seems to fly by. This is due to the activation of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions and attention, which allows individuals to focus completely on their passion without distractions.
The parent’s role in harmonious vs. obsessive passion
If your child is passionate about sports, it’s important to encourage their passion in a healthy way. Passion can be understood as a combination of both cognitive and emotional elements. According to the Dualistic Model of Passion, developed by Robert Vallerand in 2003, passion can be classified into two types – harmonious and obsessive.
In a recent article in Applied Psychology, the author, Alexis Stokes, takes a deep dive into this topic. I highly recommend this article if you have a passionate athlete. In it, she shares this important observation. When athletes feel supported and capable in their environment, their needs are likely fulfilled, and Harmonious Passion is fostered. However, when athletes feel controlled, undervalued, and unable to communicate openly in their environments, they experience a lack of need fulfillment, and Obsessive Passion can develop (Mageau et al., 2009; Stokes et al., 2022).
Harmonious passion emerges when an individual engages in a personally meaningful activity that aligns with their values, beliefs, and identity. It is a healthy form of passion, promoting psychological well-being, satisfaction, and a sense of autonomy. On the other hand, obsessive passion arises when individuals are excessively preoccupied with an activity or goal to the point where it becomes uncontrollable and detrimental to their well-being. This passion is often associated with adverse outcomes such as burnout, stress, and relationship conflict.
Depending on their approach, parents can inadvertently push their children towards either harmonious or obsessive passion. If parents exert high levels of control and excessively emphasize success, perfection, or achievement, they may unknowingly nurture obsessive passion in their children. This pressure to perform can lead children to tie their self-worth to their success in the activity, creating an unhealthy dependence and obsession.
Conversely, parents who foster a supportive and nurturing environment, encouraging intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of the activity, are likelier to cultivate harmonious passion. This approach allows children to engage with the activity on their terms and pace, integrating it into their lives in a balanced and healthy manner. Picture your child immersed in their sport, not driven by external rewards, but solely fueled by the joy and satisfaction they derive from playing. They delight in the process, relishing every moment of improvement rather than seeking validation from others. This is the essence of harmonious passion, which we should strive to cultivate.
Ultimately, you have the power to either nurture a passion or interest or squash it.
The key lies in nurturing the child’s natural interest and promoting well-rounded development rather than hyper-focusing on a single pursuit. This is important regardless of whether or not they become passionate about it.
It’s all about the environment you create. Be their unwavering pillar of support, but be mindful of the pressure that can unwittingly seep in. Make it crystal clear that your support knows no conditions or strings attached. Whether they win or lose, your love remains steady.
Additionally, remember the power of affirmation and encouragement. Recognize their efforts, their growth, and their milestones. Avoid dwelling on shortcomings or punishing poor performance. By highlighting their achievements, no matter how small, you instill confidence and nurture their love for the sport.
Coaches, you have a profound role to play as well. Understand that your coaching style can directly impact your athletes’ passion and overall experience. Communicate openly, provide constructive feedback without undue criticism, and remember to value them beyond their performance alone.
Passion and love in sports is a journey; as parents and coaches, you have the incredible opportunity to guide and shape that journey. Your influence can create a world where young athletes thrive, not only in their chosen sport but also in their personal growth and well-being.
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