3 conversations you can have with kids about sports

November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving food for thought
Written by Andy Driska

As the Thanksgiving holiday approached this year, I recounted some memories talking to my niece and nephews about their sport experiences.  Here I was, a so-called expert in sport psychology and coaching, but I didn’t have the first idea of what kinds of questions I might ask them.

I didn’t want to ask a question that focused on winning or how much playing time they were getting.  But I hadn’t thought of any questions in advance, and so rather than talking about nothing, I ended up asking those questions about winning and playing time.

“What a missed opportunity,” I thought.  “Surely there must be some other questions I could think of.”

So, with that in mind, here are three questions that you can ask kids when you see them at gatherings of friends and family for Thanksgiving this year.

Description: a word cloud containing the 38 most frequent words in this post.First things first – why is talking about winning and losing a bad choice?

Because it’s probably not going to go anywhere interesting.  The team winning or losing has more to do with things that are beyond the control of the kids on the team.  It probably depends more on luck or the coach’s decisions than it does on your niece or nephew.

The team’s performance is also what we’ve been conditioned to talk about when it comes to sports-talk.  But that’s for professional sports.   When we’re talking to kids or adolescents about their sport experiences, we’re talking about experiences that make their lives whole and interesting (hopefully).  When they get a bit older, or maybe later in the day while you watch a game on television, they can join your bro-banter and sports arguments.

Question 1 – So, tell me more about basketball this year…

It’s an easy conversation starter for kids that like to talk a lot.  It’s a statement, not a question, so it’s easier for kids to get rolling with a reply.  You’ll probably hear a range of answers, but that will tell you what’s important to them about basketball.  It might be some new friends they have made, or that they get to spend time with old friends.  Maybe they like all the playing time they’ve gotten this year.  Maybe they like that they’ve found something they are good at or something they enjoy doing.  Maybe they like the fact that the team is 9-1 this year, which is much better than last year.

What’s important here is that you are likely to get a range of responses, and it’s good to keep in mind that kids don’t just play sports to win or to get a scholarship.  What kids have to say gives an idea of what they think is important about spending time playing basketball (or whatever sport they play).

Question 2 – Have you learned any good tricks this year?

I recently had a debate with my colleague Karl Erickson about what’s most important in sport practices for kids ages 7-10 (see Part 1 here, and read Part 2 here).  Karl defended enjoyment and I defended skill development.  Both matter, and you can read our conclusions if you’d like.  But kids like to point out if they have learned any new tricks.  What’s better about this question is that learning a new trick or a new skill is something that really depends on the effort and attention that’s been put into the sport.  It’s not something like winning or losing that depends on a lot of other things going in your favor.

Question 3 – What are you looking forward to next season?

The younger that kids are, the more likely they are to be “in the moment,” and not thinking very far into the future.  Sometimes a question like this that gets them to imagine the future is a good opportunity for them.  It doesn’t have to be a goal-setting session – more like a “blue sky” session, where they can imagine what the future might hold for them, and maybe begin to take a little agency in terms of thinking about what they want from the future.

One important thing to remember – show that you actually care

One of our graduate students, Pelle Kvalsund, himself an experienced coach developer and a father, challenged my belief that asking questions is always the best strategy.  He argues that empathy and caring was what really mattered.  Asking all the questions in the world doesn’t matter unless you care.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s great for kids to talk with adults who care about them and value what they have to say.  So, I challenge you to be that person this Thanksgiving.

Andy Driska is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology.  He coordinates the graduate programs in sport coaching and leadership and teaches courses in sport psychology, skill acquisition, and coaching science.  He conducts research on coach education and athlete development.