I remember a friend talking to me when I was younger about ski racers he knew that had the talent, but lacked motivation and drive, and therefore, never went very far in the sport. That same person then pointed out to me another successful ski racer who had half the talent, but was unbelievably motivated and determined to follow his dream and made it happen for himself.
After I finished Fine Arts at University, and Graphic Design at College, I was determined to get myself into Ove Design, a highly respected design firm in Toronto that I had my heart set on. The man who interviewed me later told me he eventually gave me a job because he admired my persistence in following up with him (Yes, I basically bugged him until he gave me the job, where I worked for 3 years before starting my own design business).
But it wasn’t until later in life, after having kids, that I really understood the importance of being motivated and determined in life, and how easy it is for kids to lose these skills early in life. So I’ve made it one of my goals to help my kids maintain these skills for life. It’s so important to believe that you have the ability to make anything happen in your life, and to teach your kids when they are young that they have the ability to drive their dreams. They will attract what they believe they deserve. This does not just apply to extra-curricular activities, it applies to education and learning, too.
Here are some key points of focus to encourage and instill in your kids to help them stay motivated, regardless of their skill level:
“TRY YOUR BEST/WORK HARD” – Tell your kids this, when they say they can’t do something, or think they’re not good enough, or they are nervous, etc… It’s imperative that they not feel the only way to achieve success is to win or get high marks. All they can do is try their best; sometimes it’s not as good as other times, but on that given day, it’s their best – if they try. They need to believe in themselves that they can work to achieve their dreams, that nothing comes without hard work and effort. An important part of this process is learning to be a good listener. Remind your kids to listen to their teachers or coaches, who are there to help them reach their goals. And don’t forget to reinforce the importance of finishing what you start – don’t give up. They will learn to feel joy in taking pride in their efforts.
My son, 7, (and another boy) fell and was trampled at the start of a sandy 300 boy cross country race. He got up eventually (after first feeling he was injured) and finished the race (passing over half of the runners) and later told me that he said to himself while lying in the sand,
“I came all the way down here to do this, don’t give up now.”
“HAVE FUN” – It is so important to not lose sight of the main reason we start doing something, like a sport, because we enjoy it. Keep the focus on fun. If they only have goals to win or get perfect marks, then they are setting themselves up for disappointment or failure (in their minds). It’s also about the learning, the experience and the time with their friends. I tell my 9 year old son who really wants to continue winning ski races, “Don’t forget how much you love this sport and how much fun you have.”…“It’s not all about the end result or the goal, it’s about enjoying the process of getting there as well”. My 11 yr old daughter, on the other hand, is a fantastic technical skier, but she has yet to win any races. So, it’s just as important to me to instill a love of having fun in her, as it is my son who does win races.
PRAISE THEIR HARD WORK – One of the most important things we can do as parents to help is to praise their hard work, instilling a great work ethic for life. Don’t tell them “You’re so talented” or “You’re so smart” as often kids will eventually stop trying, thinking that they don’t have to work hard, that things should come easy to them. As years go by, not only could they become lazy, but they could lose interest, and for example, the fun of a sport they once thrived in will wear off and they often stop doing it all together. Instead tell them how proud you are of them, how much you enjoy watching them progress and “You must have worked really hard!” or “Wow. Good work!”
I read a Globe & Mail article years ago about a study that involved gifted children and average children. Both groups were tested twice and the average children excelled beyond the gifted children. Theory was that the gifted children didn’t feel they needed to try hard, whereas the average children pushed themselves and tried harder and scored higher marks the second time around. So if your child comes home with high marks, praise their efforts and hard work, rather than trying to make them feel special by saying “You’re so smart”. Your child might start to feel they don’t have to try hard, and that’s often where the downward spiral begins. They think everything should come naturally to them and they don’t have to work for things in life. (Not to mention they live with the pressure of always feeling they need to impress other people – the burden of expectation, living with the weight of feeling they’ve let other people down, vs doing things for the simple love of doing things for themselves.)
What we do with our experiences and how we learn from them is the hard part and where kids can go down the wrong path. The points of focus are the same whether you have a child that has yet to excel or if you already have a child that is excelling in school or winning in a sport, as you do not want them to give up if they stop winning. Nor do you want them to lose interest after years of doing it, because the thrill is gone. Nothing comes without hard work and effort. Help guide your kids in the right direction. Help keep your kids determined and motivated, and regardless of their natural talent, they will succeed.
Note: If you are parents of boys, and want to learn about social, cultural, and biological factors in today’s generation of unmotivated boys, I recommend reading “Boys Adrift” by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. (It also helped me learn how boys learn differently than girls. Some of the brain trajectories of a (roughly) 3 year old girl is that of a 5 year old boy!! This allowed me to be more patient with my son. And, a whole other topic of conversation, how it’s not enough to teach well but to recognize and teach when kids are ready to learn.)