Creating a positive start

How we speak to our children and how we help shape their young athletic lives may not only influence their current participation in sports, but it may also affect their lifelong attitudes toward physical fitness.

Dr. Sharleen Hoar, kinesiology professor and sports psychologist, studies issues related to emotional control in developmental athletes. She contends that positive early experiences in sport are crucial in keeping kids involved in physical fitness beyond minor hockey and little league.

"Generally speaking, when we can facilitate a sport environment that accentuates personal improvement, personal competency, we enhance motivation and we keep them in the system longer," she says.

She intends to show that with these positive attitudes, not only will kids engage in sport well into their teenage years but that when organized sport is not readily accessible later in life, they will still seek out physical fitness opportunities.

"The whole purpose around understanding emotional control is that if kids have a more positive and satisfying experience and recognize growth in that experience, they are therefore motivated to continue in their sport," she says.

So how do we go about shaping these positive attitudes early on in an athletes' development? One way is to help kids see success in all areas of sport, not just the win and loss column.

"Where do we find success? We can find it in how much better we're getting in our sport, or what we call competencies, but we can also judge how successful we are by how we are doing compared to our peers," she says.

At this point, there exists a delicate balance between encouraging competitiveness but not getting lost in results.

"There's a time and a place for competition and there's definitely a real motivation from wanting to be the best compared to other people but that doesn't happen to everyone," says Hoar. "Everybody can only aspire to be their personal best, you can only actualize your own potential and everybody has different potentials."

She says kids begin to understand this at around age 14, when they are able to better assess their peers and see where they fit in the pecking order. This is a very important time because if kids have been groomed to only see being the best as a positive result of participation, they're more likely to walk away from their sport. After that, chances they gravitate back to sport, or any physical fitness as adults, decreases.

Hoar is passionate about her work and sees real results from her research findings. She sees physical fitness not only as an outlet and a means by which people can live healthier lives but as a way to enhance all aspects of life.

"I see sport principles in the business and academic worlds all the time, they are achievement domains," she says. "Anytime you are trying to develop competencies, the principles remain the same, it's just a different domain. There are many sport psychologists who work in the business field because there are so many things in common. Aspects such as teamwork, motivation, emotional control, personality — there are so many things that go hand in hand."

Very few children will go on to have careers in sport but that doesn't mean all the early morning practises and weekend road trips are a waste if they don't result in a professional career. By establishing a positive attitude towards athletics for children, they are likely to be physically active, and much healthier, adults.

"From what we know from other areas of research, if we enhance motivation in sport, we can probably enhance physical activity as a lifestyle."