The most commonly and consistently cited motives for participating in sport are developing and displaying competence (from learning new skills), experiencing challenges and success, acquiring social benefits that arise from affiliation to a group or team, improving fitness, and having fun. On the other hand, reasons for sport withdrawal include the attraction of other activities, lack of success, reduced playing time, overemphasis on winning, and not meeting new friends. Hence, it appears there is a greater likelihood children and adolescents will drop out of sport when their reasons (i.e., motives) for participation are no longer being fulfilled.
Developmental Differences in Participation Motives
There are developmental differences in sport participation motives. A study conducted by Daniel Gould and his colleagues in the 1980s showed 8 to 11-year-old swimmers cited encouragement from parents and friends and liking the coach as important motives for participation. Alternatively, older swimmers (12 to 19-year-olds) cited fitness, skills, excitement, and challenge. Another study from 1990 showed younger children (ages 6–9) rated competition-related motives, liking the coach, and pleasing family and friends as more important motives for participation than older age groups. The older children (ages 10–14) and adolescents (ages 15–18) rated social status motives higher than the younger group. Interestingly, the reasons participants drop out of sport also seem to vary with age. For example, one study showed swimmers ages 15 to 19 who dropped out cited not being good enough more than swimmers ages 10 to 14 who dropped out.
Gender Differences in Participation Motives
Girls are generally less active than boys, especially during adolescence. One reason for the gender difference in sport participation may be the different societal expectations that have existed for boys and girls. Traditionally, sport has been perceived as a male domain that provides boys with opportunities to display strength, skill, and other physical attributes. Although these views seem to be changing and girls are increasingly participating in sport, research continues to indicate that boys receive more financial and logistical support to participate in sport than girls. It has also been identified that girls and boys value different motives for participating in sport. For example, boys tend to value the competitive aspects of sport more than girls. In contrast, girls appear to place a higher premium on the social aspects of sport than boys. Girls also appear to consider the benefits of sport relating to fitness, fun, weight control, and physical appearance more important than boys.
Theories of Motivation
Various theoretical perspectives help reveal more information about motives for youth sport participation. Developed to explain motivation in achievement settings, Susan Harter’s competence motivation theory proposes that children are motivated to feel competent in achievement settings and engage in mastery attempts so they can display competence. That is, if children are successful in their mastery endeavors they feel more competent and continue to seek out opportunities to display mastery and competence. With regards to sport, this theory predicts that youth who perceive higher levels of physical competence are likely to be motivated to remain in sport. Harter’s theory also highlights a number of antecedents that underpin perceptions of competence and motivation for sport participation. Specifically, feedback from social agents (e.g., parents, coaches), previous experiences (e.g., success or failure in sport), and perceived control over the outcome (e.g., the extent to which success is under the athletes’ control) are proposed to influence children’s perceptions of competence. Children’s perceptions of competence also influence affective outcomes (e.g., anxiety, enjoyment) associated with sport participation.
Achievement goal theory (AGT) posits that to understand the motivation of young athletes it is necessary to understand the function and meaning of their goal directed actions. Individuals’ goals (e.g., to demonstrate competence or ability or avoid demonstrating low ability in achievement domains) influence behaviors. Individuals’ perceptions of their ability can be construed in two different ways. Ability may be perceived in relation to individuals’ own task mastery (i.e., a self-referenced perspective) or using normative reference standards (i.e., an other-referenced perspective). Individuals who seek to demonstrate their ability in relation to others are labeled as ego involved. Such individuals tend to define success through the demonstration of superior abilities or performances in relation to others. In contrast, task involvement refers to when individuals seek to demonstrate ability in relation to their own task mastery. For task-involved individuals, ability can be evaluated through learning new skills, improving skills, mastering a task, or giving their best effort. Research shows high task-involved individuals select more challenging tasks and expend greater effort as they strive to improve their own performance. On the other hand, highly ego-involved individuals select tasks they are confident of achieving to display superior ability compared to others. The value significant others (i.e., teachers, coaches, and parents) place upon self-improvement versus succeeding against others has been associated with the development of children’s task or ego-involvement. For example, coaches who provide positive feedback when their athletes win and negative feedback when they lose may encourage the development of ego goals in their athletes (due to the emphasis they place on performance relative to others), whereas coaches who provide feedback to their athletes regarding the development of specific skills and the effort they display are likely to encourage athletes to develop task orientations. As such, striving to foster task-involvement in youth may enhance their motivation to participate in sport.
Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT) is based upon the premise that humans have an innate drive to maximize their positive feelings and effectively master challenging tasks. According to the SDT, people have three universal needs that must be fulfilled. These needs are competence (the need to feel behaviors and interactions are effective), autonomy (the need to perceive behaviors and thoughts are freely chosen), and relatedness (the need to feel connected to people around us). SDT also includes four “mini-theories” that explain how the interaction between humans and social contextual factors influence motivation and well-being. These are cognitive evaluation theory (CET), organismic integration theory (OIT), causality orientations theory (COT), and basic needs theory. The extent to which intrapersonal and interpersonal contexts support individuals’ basic needs is proposed to dictate their enjoyment of an activity and their feelings of self-determination regarding behavior. Behavior driven by intrinsic motivation (engaging in an activity because it is innately enjoyable) is the most self-determined. Amotivation (a lack of motivation) results in the least self-determined behavior. Extrinsic motivation (engage in a behavior to achieve a separate outcome) sits between intrinsic motivation and amotivation. Thus, striving to fulfill youths’ basic needs and promoting intrinsic motivation are important for maintaining children’s participation in sport.
The sport commitment model (SCM) was developed by Tara Scanlan and colleagues to illustrate factors associated with an individual’s desire to continue his or her sport participation. Antecedents of sport commitment are enjoyment, involvement opportunities (anticipated or expected benefits afforded from continued participation), involvement alternatives (attraction to other activities as opposed to sport), personal investments (how much an individual has invested in sport), and social constraints (expectations from others to continue in sport). However, research indicated that the role or importance of these antecedents with regards to sport commitment may not be equal. Rather, it appears that sport enjoyment is particularly important and mediates the influence the other antecedents have upon individuals’ sport commitment.
The theories just described provide several implications for fulfilling the motives children and adolescents have for participating in sport. It is important to create an environment that enhances competence, which can be achieved when individuals received praise from their parents, coaches, and peers. Praise and feedback related to individual improvement and effort, as opposed to their success in relation to others, is likely to enhance perceptions of competence and intrinsic motivation more consistently. Youth also need to be reminded that their success is a result of their own actions. Youth involved in sport also need to have opportunities to develop friendships and relationships with their peers, coaches, and other social agents. One way to do this is to provide opportunities for participations to gain the experience of playing the sport without being overly constrained by the technical and tactical aspects of training or competition. By creating a sporting environment that maximizes the potential for youth to experience success, affiliation, and enjoyment, there may be more chance of youth remaining in sport.
The most commonly cited motives for participating in sport are developing and displaying competence (from learning new skills), experiencing challenges and success, acquiring social benefits that arise from affiliation to a group or team, improving fitness, and having fun. When these motives are not fulfilled, youth may drop out of sport. Approximately 30% of youth drop out of a given sport program annually, and highest attrition occurs during adolescence. Several theoretical frameworks provided useful strategies for facilitating involvement and enjoyment in youth sport. These frameworks can be used to examine and facilitate participation in youth sport.
- Gould, D., Feltz, D., Horn, T., & Weiss, M. R. (1982). Reasons for attrition in competitive youth swimming. Journal of Sport Behavior, 5, 155–165.
- Harter, S. (1992). The relationship between perceived competence, affect, and motivational orientation within the classroom: Processes and patterns of change. In A. K. Boggiano & T. S. Pittman (Eds.), Achievement and motivation: A social-developmental perspective (pp. 77–115). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Harwood, C., Hardy, L., & Swain, A. (2000). Achievement goals in sport: A critique of conceptual and measurement issues. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 22, 235–255.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
- Scanlan, T. K., Carpenter, P., Schmidt, J., Simons, J., & Keeler, B. (1993). An introduction to the sport commitment model. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 15, 1–15.
- Weiss, M. R., & Williams, L. (2004). The why of youth sport involvement: A developmental perspective on motivational processes. In M. R. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.