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Portrait Of Children In Water At Edge Of Pool Waiting For Swimming Lesson

When children are asked about why they play sports, having fun is consistently ranked as the number one reason. Trying their best, being treated with respect and getting playing time are reasons that fall close behind. Winning, on the other hand, is ranked much lower, near the bottom of all reasons for playing sport (Visek et al, 2014).

Research overwhelmingly shows that sports are beneficial for children as they grow up. Kids get to learn teamwork and how to socialize, see the benefits of hard work, and are exposed to the importance of exercise (Merkel, 2013). But the pressure to succeed, experiences of bullying, or being cut from a team too early are some of the many reasons that kids resent their sport experiences (O’Sullivan, 2015).

With all the benefits that sports offer at a young age, it’s critical for parents to ensure that the dynamics of their children’s teams offer the right balance between a competitive atmosphere and one that fosters learning and fun (Cumming et al, 2007).

In this blog, we explain why it’s important to cultivate a “mastery motivational climate” (that is, one where the success of an athlete is determined by their own perception of skill development and satisfaction) for youth in sport. We also explain how parents can reinforce a mastery approach through the messages they share with their children.

What is a motivational climate?

A motivational climate can be broken down into two different forms, mastery and ego.

Ego climates emphasize winning, with success being defined by who is the best. Individual results are determined by comparing different athletes, with failure and a lack of success being highlighted. Whereas the top NHL teams might find some success with an ego climate, your young budding basketball player will likely benefit more from a mastery climate (Mossman et al, 2021).

Young male athletes participating in drills at a soccer training camp. Wearing gps tracker devices to collect data.A mastery climate is one where the success of an athlete is determined by their own perception of skill development and satisfaction (Cumming et al, 2007). This means that success is not determined by winning or being the best, but when an athlete feels that they have been improving and having fun on their own terms. This can come through learning something new, seeing yourself improve, or trying your best.

By creating a mastery climate within a team, the emphasis is placed on effort and not ability, where you develop your skills as a player in an environment free from the pressure of failure (Cumming et al, 2007). Some of the benefits of a mastery climate include:

  • Decreased feelings of pressure from coaches and parents
  • Increased sense of pride based on effort and self-improvement
  • Opportunities for equal playing time
  • Minimized alienation through situations that amplify skill gaps
  • Autonomy and ownership over game experience

For a child beginning their sporting journey, the goal should be to have them fall in love with sport while developing skills and a good work ethic. They should also experience a sense of inclusion and belonging. Taking away the pressures of performance helps to create an environment where children are excited to come to practices or games and enjoy giving it their all (O’Sullivan, 2015). While not every kid is destined for competitive or professional sport, a mastery climate increases the chances of viewing sport positively throughout their life.

What can you do as a parent?

Father and child playing soccer in the park.Interestingly, most parents believe the reason their children like to play sports is to win (Merkel, 2013). Consequently, many parents contribute to the creation of an ego climate. Parents who are on the coaching staff or the sidelines have a responsibility to instill a healthy climate and perspective for young athletes (O’Sullivan, 2015). Particularly for children entering sport, parents should work to create practice and game strategies that prioritize a fun and accepting environment.

The emphasis for the young athletes should be on the importance of effort in the learning process, while reinforcing hard work and persistence. This can be accomplished by:

  • Emphasizing fun and de-emphasizing winning
  • Providing positive praise
  • Prioritizing instructional feedback and reinforcing positive behavior
  • Using age-appropriate instruction

Of course, as children grow and sport becomes more competitive, the environments in which they compete can change. However, for children first starting out, coaches and parents’ goal should be to guide their athletes into having a positive relationship with sport. By ensuring that everyone involved in youth sports concentrate on making competition and development fun for all, athletes are more likely to trust their coaches and stay participating for years to come (Zhang et al, 2013).

So, what does this all mean?

Cheerful young rugby players on the fieldMost parents can probably agree that at the end of the day, the goal is to see your child smiling and enjoying themselves while playing sport. Some might be the next Christine Sinclair or Steve Nash stepping onto the field or court for the first time ever. For most of these athletes though, the first step to having those great relationships with sport is about creating great early experiences. Keep it fun.

About the Author(s)

Noah Lipin graduated in the class of 2022, receiving a BScH in Kinesiology with distinction from the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. After taking a year off for work and experience, he will pursue further education and a career in healthcare and wellness.

Luc Martin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. His research interests lie in the areas of positive youth development and team dynamics in sport. Noah completed this blog as an assignment in his KNPE 363 Team Dynamics course.


Cumming, S. P., Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., & Grossbard, JR. (2007). Is winning everything? The relative contributions of motivational climate and won-lost percentage in youth sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(3), 322-326.

Merkel, D. L. (2013). Young sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open Access J Sport Med, 4, 151-160.

Mills, D. (2016) Children should play more than one sport, pediatricians recommend. Healthline.

Mossman, G.J., Robertson, C., Williamson, B., & Cronin, L. (2021). Coaches, parents, or peers: Who has the greatest influence on sports participants’ life skills development. Journal of Sports Sciences, 39(21), 2475-2484.

O’Sullivan, J. (2015). Why kids quit sports. Coaching problems in youth sports. Sports Parenting.

Prichard, A., & Deutsch, J. (2015). The effects of motivational climate on youth sport participants. The Physical Educator, 72(5), 200-214.

Rudisill, M. E. & Johnson, J. L. (2018). Mastery motivational climates in early childhood physical education: What have we learned over the years?. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 89(6), 26-32.

Visek, A, J., Achrati, , S.M., Manning, H., McDonnell, K., Harris, B. S., & DiPietro, L. (2014). The fun integration theory: Towards sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 12(3), 424-433.

Zhang, Z., & Chelladurai, P. (2013). Antecedents and consequences of athlete’s trust in the coach. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 2(2), 115-121.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.