Participation Motives

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.


  1. Gould, D., Feltz, D., Horn, T., & Weiss, M. R. (1982). Reasons for attrition in competitive youth swimming. Journal of Sport Behavior, 5, 155–165.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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