How to reward sport performance

In the last article, we discussed the importance of focusing on what you can control.  As a parent, coach, or other supporter of a child athlete, it is also important to understand what aspects of a child’s performance should be reinforced and how to go about doing so.  As a Little League baseball player, I recall some parents setting up a menu of monetary awards for various accomplishments by their child: 25 cents for a single, 50 cents for a double, 75 cents for a triple, and a whole dollar for a home run.  If you read the last article, you already know one of the reasons why this is problematic.  The young athlete can execute a perfect swing and hit the ball as solidly as s/he ever has…right at the center fielder.  Or a player on the other team can make a spectacular catch that would otherwise have been an extra-base hit.  Nine times out of ten executing exactly like that would result in a base hit or better.  Is that not worth reinforcing?  But under the “pay for results” system, it is treated the same as a called strikeout.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

There is another reason why this system can be detrimental to a young athlete.  Every single thing we do regularly we do because it is rewarding to us in some way.  The rewards can come from inside of us (called intrinsic motivation) or from outside (extrinsic motivation).  Intrinsic motivators include pure enjoyment of the sport, self-satisfaction with a good performance, and increased self-esteem from participation.  Extrinsic motivators are things like money and other awards that come from outside the athlete.  If extrinsic rewards become excessive, they can undermine intrinsic motivation, as the child will begin to perceive that they are participating in the sport for the external rewards rather than their pure enjoyment of the game.  There is an old story about a man who was very fond of his pristine lawn.  He became dismayed when a group of neighborhood kids began playing baseball on his lawn.  He was a very wise man.  Rather than chase the kids away (which would surely become a game in and of itself), he calmly approached the boys and said “you are welcome to play baseball on my lawn any time you want, on one condition.  You have to let me pay you each $5 to do so.”  Sure that the man was senile, they readily accepted the cash.  After a few days, he approached the boys again and said “guys, you’re still welcome to play any time you like, but I can only afford to pay you $2 each.”  The boys again accepted.  But after a few more days, the man approached the boys a third time and said “Guys, I am really sorry.  You are welcome to play baseball on my lawn any time you want.  But I have run out of money and am no longer able to pay you anything.”  The boys angrily replied “Forget it!  If you’re not willing to pay us, we’ll find somewhere else to play!”  The wise man in this humorous story was successful in eliminating the intrinsic motivation for playing baseball on his lawn with external reinforcers.  When the external reinforce disappeared, so too did any desire to play baseball on his lawn.  This is very likely what happens to many professional athletes.  After playing a game for many years simply because they love playing, they begin to get extrinsically rewarded in sometimes ridiculous quantities.  After a while, it is not uncommon to hear of an athlete sitting out a portion of a season or a whole season because they were only offered $5 million instead of the $10 million they are sure they’re worth.

Build Self-esteem

So, what should you as a parent, coach, or other supporter of a young athlete reinforce, and how should you do it?  As we learned in the last article, you should reinforce the variables the athlete can control.  Showing up to the game, hustle, effort, and a positive attitude.  You reinforce these behaviors with praise, because that increases the child’s self-esteem, belief in their abilities, and thus their intrinsic motivation for the game.  Intrinsic motivation can build and build into a deep love for sports, while too much extrinsic motivation can erode the enjoyment that should be a primary part of sports involvement.  As always, feel free to comment on this post or email me ( with any questions, comments, or requests for future articles.