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Reward Effort Until Effort is its Own Reward

February 8, 2009 09:00 PM
By David Jacobson
Positive Coaching Alliance

Among the most important life lessons Responsible Coaches can teach their youth athletes is the value of effort. Throughout their lives – in sports, in school, in family and friendship and career – success will require tremendous effort.
Eventually youth and high school athletes may come to view effort as its own reward. They may enjoy the sheer exhaustion of training runs or the reassurance that seemingly endless repetition of skills has prepared their minds and muscles to perform at game time.
However, most children (and adults!) balk at this type of work. Until they learn to experience effort as its own reward, you will need to coax and entice players into making the necessary commitment in practice sessions. Here are a few approaches:

Discussing with your child what their goals are related to playing youth sports and how that may differentiate from your goals for your child is a tough subject to bring up. Responsible Sports Parenting suggests starting with getting on the same page with your kids. Why do your children want to play youth sports? Why do they want to participate? Once you consider those answers and recognize where you and your child agree and differ, you can establish common ground for conversations that will help you and your child get what you want from youth sports. To learn more about Determining Goals for Our Kids in Sports go to
Introduce Competition. Nothing relieves the mental or physical fatigue of drills and conditioning like a competitive challenge. If players are simply ordered to run sprints, for example, they will just go through the motions.

Once players feel there is something at stake, they will expend extra effort. Competition need not pit player against player. For example, if you time sprints, whoever improves the most on their personal best can be the "winner."
Targeted Symbolic Rewards. Establish an award for the player who expends the greatest effort…something that is valueless except for its symbolic recognition of the recipient's effort. For example, at the end of the sprint session at each practice, that day's award winner could receive a worn-out running shoe.
This does not necessarily go to the player who finishes first. Consider rewarding the player who usually finishes last but moves up a few places due to additional effort in that practice.
Keep "Emotional Tanks" Overflowing. Positive Coaching Alliance advises coaches and parents to "Fill Emotional Tanks" of youth athletes. Like a car's gas tank, a full "emotional tank" can take us anywhere, but an empty tank can take us nowhere.
Remember, we're talking here about players enduring drudgery. Beyond the "Magic Ratio" that keeps a player's "Emotional Tank" full -- five specific, truthful praises for each correction - getting players to go all out in drills and conditioning calls for yet more positive reinforcement.
Even though your players may just be running, they will appreciate hearing, "Wow, look at Bill! He's picking up the pace today!" Focus on keeping enthusiasm in your voice. If you sound as excited about effort in a sprint as you do about a great pass, block or shot, then your players are more likely to feel that same excitement for the task at hand.
Provide Continual Inspiration. Players must understand the equation S=E/T (success equals effort over time). Keep them mindful that drills and conditioning are building blocks that yield mostly long-term results.
To keep your players inspired, have a ready supply of examples of hard work paying off. Inspiration may be drawn from pro sports or other high-profile endeavors, but it can be even more effective to discuss a local example or one close in age to your players. That may make your players' long-term goals seem more achievable so that they are sold on the idea that with extra effort, they can succeed, too.
Along the way, emphasize that effort is its own reward. Players may not believe or understand this at first, but when they start to see results from their efforts, they will catch on and improve as athletes and as people.
What to learn more about the concepts in this article? Click on the links below: 
In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Responsible SportsTM program ( powered by Positive Coaching Alliance (



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