How to motivate your kids to participate in sports

Despite the benefits of sports, fewer Australian children are participating in weekly activities. Here are expert tips on how to get kids interested in sports.

There’s no doubt sport is hugely beneficial for children.

It’s great for their health, fosters social skills and teaches valuable life lessons about teamwork, leadership and discipline.

A University of Sydney study has even shown a link between playing sport and improved academic performance.

Yet, despite all these advantages, fewer than half of Australian children aged under 15 took part in weekly out-of-school hours sport in 2022.

Why fewer kids are participating in sport

Part of the problem, according to Australian Sports Commission sport and community capability executive general manager Richard McInnes, is the lingering impact of the pandemic.

Throw in a jump in fees from $600 per child in 2020 to $650 in 2022 as local clubs face rising operating costs, and the outlook begins to look a little bleak.

And while participation rates are beginning to bounce back, partly thanks to a flood of eager young soccer players after the Matildas’ historic World Cup performance last year, they haven’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels of about 60 per cent.

“Our latest AusPlay data shows around 52 per cent of children took part in sport in 2022 to 2023, so it’s heading in the right direction again, which is great,” Richard says.

“But that’s only taking part in sport once a week, and we’d love to see kids more active than that over time.”

Getting and keeping kids interested in sport

The good news is getting and keeping your kids engaged in sport is pretty simple, according to the experts.

Sport psychologist and Good Sport author Dr Jay-Lee Nair says research consistently shows fun is the strongest motivator for young athletes.

“The fun and joy for sport is already there for young athletes, so this is not about building it,” Dr Nair says.

“The question we have to ask is what we, as parents or coaches, are doing to take that fun and joy away?”

The answer: being overly critical and results focused.

“When a child starts to compete in their sport, parents and coaches have a belief that in order to grow a child’s performance, they must focus on errors and that takes all the fun out of it,” she says.

How to put fun back into sport for your kids

Focus on effort

Dr Nair says parents need to separate performance from results such as winning, personal bests, times or scores and medals or rankings.

“If you focus on results at the exclusion of everything else, it creates tons of negative pressure for a child,” she says.

“Put those high expectations around values and habits such as effort, positive self-talk, present focus, positive reactions to mistakes, confident body language — things a child can influence and control — and they will feel confident and motivated.”

Richard says another common problem is that parents try to live vicariously through their child’s sporting journey.

“Parents often encourage their kids to play what they played, but it’s much better to encourage your child to try a range of sports so they can find what they enjoy,” he says.

“Your goal as a parent should be to ensure your child’s experience with sport is positive so that they want to keep doing it.”

Forget about the outcome

Dr Nair suggests shifting the conversation away from the outcome of the match.

“Unfortunately, I see a lot of parents focusing on the opponents before a match, saying things like, ‘You should smash this person or team’,” she notes.

“That can create a lot of anxiety because they are basically being told they have to win.”

Instead, talk about how the child wants to feel and things they can control.

“The key, particularly for teenage athletes, is for them to feel your support and empathy,” Dr Nair says.

Avoid feedback during play

When it comes to match time, silence is golden.

“What my research tells me is that children don’t want any verbal feedback at all during the game — they want your silent encouragement and support,” Dr Nair says.

“They already have the coach telling them things; you adding to it is just confusing and will destroy their focus.”

Praise positive behaviour or specific skills

Once the game is done, the big lesson here is to avoid one‑sided debriefs around errors and phrases such as “you did this” or “this is the mistake you made’’.

“They already know every mistake they made, so it’s not necessary to highlight these,” Dr Nair says.

“When you dissect errors, it creates a power imbalance and the child isn’t able to see what they did well.”

Instead, acknowledge positive behaviour and strengths.

“Help them to focus on the key habits and techniques, and remember that winning or losing often has no connection whatsoever to a child’s ability,” she advises.

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Written by Dimity Barber.