We thrill to watch our children succeed — leading many parents to wonder what it takes to perform like a star. The answer may surprise you. Rather than natural skill or performance-enhancing drugs, a 1999 study of professional soccer players suggests they owe their achievement more to tough training than talent. And even for child prodigies like chess champ Bobby Fischer, experts note that it takes at least a decade of heavy labor to master any field.
According to K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, progress in any skill is due not only to experience but to “effortful study”, which entails continually challenging oneself with new skills that lie just beyond one’s competence. He explains that once most people reach a standard level of performance, their actions become automatic as they begin to relax. This is why it is possible to experience rapid progress in a new activity, but then spend thousands of hours playing a sport without any noted improvements.
By contrast, standout athletes keep their minds open at all times to new techniques and methods of study that can potentially impact or improve their training.
The takeaway message? Pressure is healthy — at least to some degree. But how do we keep our kids motivated without piling on the stress? Following are some suggestions:
Do your homework: Considerable evidence shows that young people who perceive they are competent in an activity are more likely to sustain involvement. Before enrolling your child in a sport or group activity, spend time observing her to derive a better understanding of her unique skills and talents. Children who are quiet and play by themselves may prefer individual activities such as chess, tennis or golf, while more social children often benefit from group activities such as soccer or gymnastics. Whatever you decide, letting your children participate in a variety of activities early on allows you to get their feedback on the activity they most enjoy.
Build social support: Research points to social support on and off the court or athletic field as a key factor in building motivation. For parents, this means working together to build a bond among teammates through team-centered social activities. For children in individual sports, this can be achieved through friendships with athletes in a similar activity. Children who feel they have a partner they can relate to are more likely to stick with their activity for the long haul.
Lead by example: Providing enjoyable experiences is a surefire strategy to build interest in exercise. But what factors make fitness fun for your child? According to numerous studies, parents who enjoy physical activities are more encouraging of their child to be active. Participating in games and activities with your family is a great way to combine family time with exercise while leaving a lasting impression on your child. Experts say any activity will do. Ericsson suggests an activity you may have enjoyed as a child as an excellent choice to get your family moving. “The point is to make sure it is familiar, fun and performed on a consistent basis,” he says.
Challenge your child: Because children use mastery of skills as a predictor for determining how competent they are, optimal challenges help to keep them motivated. Optimal challenges are goals that are within their reach. This is done by periodically sitting down with your child and setting realistic goals for their sport or activity. “I like to think of this as matching the goal to the child, not the child to the goal,” says Ericsson, who recommends regularly revisiting this topic through feedback and discussion. “Positive pressure is letting your child know you care about their goal without choosing it for them.”
CHRIS KELLY is a NYC NASM-Certified fitness trainer, nutritionist, and editor of ‘The Spotter’, a webzine devoted to health and wellness for city dwellers. For more information, visit www.thespotter.net.