Paying Youth Athletes for Performance

A colleague forwarded me an e-news from sports-media.org that contained an article titled Cash For Goals in Youth Soccer: Adults Gone Wild. When I give parent education clinics as part of a research-based educational program I helped develop called Parents Learning About Youth Sports (PLAYS), I always include a brief section about paying children for performing.

Why is it brief?

Because the take home message for sport parents is this: NEVER pay your child for scoring goals, winning matches, or accomplishing some performance standard…NEVER. Just don’t do it.

The sports-media.org piece gets at some of reasons why this is not a good practice, but I’d like to elaborate.

Researchers have demonstrated that giving extrinsic rewards (like $$) for an activity that is already inherently fun and enjoyable (like sports), can undermine intrinsic motivation. We want kids to play sports and be physically active because they love it, its fun, they meet friends, learn new skills, enjoy competition and thrive on striving to be the best they can be. If adults offer monetary rewards for scoring goals, the primary focus is on scoring goals and success is defined in terms of scoring goals…not because sport is fun and enjoyable. The classic studies around this phenomena involve collegiate athletes who obtain an athletic scholarship. Many collegiate athletes are good at their sport because they love it, but some play only in hopes of obtaining a full-ride. For some of the very few who actually do obtain an athletic scholarship (and the odds are VERY low according to the NCAA), they often face diminishing intrinsic motivation. They’ve worked so long and hard to get the scholarship, and that is how success was defined, that once they get the scholarship, sport has no meaning and is no longer is enjoyable. I’ve seen this far too often with collegiate athletes in my classes.

When intrinsic motivation doesn’t exist or is undermined by adults, athletes will more likely to experience anxiety, burnout and dropout, and will also experience less enjoyment, satisfaction, well-being and optimal performance, and positive development.

If you want to read on your own about the self-determination theory, and learn about the complexities pertaining to why paying youth athletes is a terrible idea, I encourage you to go here.

What should parents do to foster intrinsic motivation, instead of paying their child-athlete?

Based on the evidence, I suggest a few simple things as a starting point:

  • attend the event and look like you are engaged (i.e., don’t read the paper or talk on your cell phone)
  • cheer only when someone does something good & cheer for everyone’s children, not just your own
  • refrain from yelling instructions or “coaching” from the sidelines
  • offer unconditional care, regardless of the outcome or the performance

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