Motivating Your Athlete – When to push and when to support

Hey everyone, it’s Coach Rebecca. Today I am answering a question we recently got from a parent in our Sport Confidence Accelerator group on Facebook. A lot of parents might struggle with knowing when to push their athlete, and when to back off a little and just offer a little more support!

Let me give you a scenario you may be able to relate to. You have an athlete that shows so much potential. You see it their coach sees it and you know that your kid is pretty good at this sport, but for some reason, they just aren’t rising to their full potential. Maybe they get in their own head. Maybe they don’t believe in themselves. Maybe they lack some confidence, but whatever it is, you see them underperforming. You know that they could do better, so you start asking yourself, what can you as a parent do better to help your kid?

Parent Support

As a parent, you’d do anything for your kid. The hard part is figuring out just what they need to rise to the potential that we see in them. If we automatically think that they just need a little push, some motivating, that if you can light a fire under them they will rise up. But all of that is based on the assumption that the athlete needs motivating. Now let’s think about the athlete. They love their sport. They care about it so much. It’s all they eat, sleep, and breathe. So lacking motivation doesn’t really fit, it doesn’t really make sense.


Internal Motivation

There are two types of motivation. There is internal motivation and external motivation. Parents, you are external motivation. You can never create internal motivation for your child. Now that internal motivation is usually why they started and stuck with their sport for this long. It starts by having fun doing the sport and then wanting to do it all the time. Then doing it all the time, they get good at it and it’s fun and then they are competing and winning. That builds that motivation and they strive to win, strive to succeed. But at some point having fun, turns into ” I have to be perfect”.

External Motivation

The second type of motivation is external motivation. This is a motivation that we put on the athlete. Oftentimes parents and coaches mean well, they are trying to be sweet and fun and incentivize winning or learning new skills. But what this actually does, is add a new level of stress to an athlete who is more than likely already feeling the effects of stress. It can be as simple as promising ice cream for landing a new skill or getting a new pet for winning a meet.

The effects of change in the competitive sport world

Athletes go through a wild change when switching between recreational gymnastics to a more competitive level of gymnastics. They go from doing flips in the living room to getting into a gym as a safe outlet space, and then suddenly at 10, 11, 12 years old they are being pushed hard and competing hard. That can lead to an athlete feeling like the weight of the world is on their shoulders because they feel like everyone expects them to be perfect.

If it isn’t a lack of motivation then what is it?

This is something we talk about all the time with our parents in the Perform Happy community. often times what might look like a lack of motivation is actually anxiety or fear that the athlete is experiencing. It’s easy to confuse the two as they often present the same way physically. What you might see is an athlete not going for a skill, not taking as many turns, or they aren’t as excited about practice or trying new skills, we tend to automatically lean toward the need for motivation. When actually that athlete is trying so hard to hold it together mentally and emotionally that they are simply doing all that they can by just showing up and taking those few turns. They don’t have any more effort within them to give because doing these big skills is so mentally and emotionally taxing.

Putting it all together 

When you add all of that emotional and mental taxation to the pressure of needing to be perfect, the brain eventually just shuts down. It no longer feels safe. That athlete then goes from pushing hard and always taking turns and practicing to the kid that is going to the restroom more often or suddenly has a slight injury that you can’t see. They don’t even realize that they are doing it or why they are doing it. Their brain just needs a break and this is how it gets that break. 

When they don’t need motivating, they need support

Unconditional love. That is what athletes need when they are in this place of anxiety and brain fog. They don’t need a push. It’s not a lack of motivation. A bribe won’t help. Those things actually become counterproductive. If your daughter falls off of the beam, do you still love her? Of course, you do! If your son freaks out in the water and doesn’t finish his swim race you’re still going to love him right? We have to make that extraordinarily clear for these kids. I love you, I still love you, I will always love you.

I am so proud of you for getting out there and trying. It’s okay if you don’t always win, it’s okay if you don’t land a big skill right away. You did the best you could with what you had that day and that is what matters. Then what you do is you keep focusing on their effort and validating their feelings and their fear. And every time you see even the slightest bit of improvement whether that is in the skill or the effort, you call it out and tell them you noticed it getting better and that you are proud of it! That will increase their internal motivation when they realize that they are improving and there isn’t pressure put on it. 

Don’t put pressure on the sport that isn’t needed

When heading to practice don’t line them out. Don’t ask a million questions about what they need to do at practice, what skills they need to work on, what they need to do better. Turn on some good music and make the ride to practice fun so that they look forward to going to practice, not dreading it. Make everything you can about the sport fun again so that their brain can take it all in and feel safe again. At Perform Happy we do a lot of work with self

On the off chance that they need motivating

On the off chance that there is a lack of motivation, you have to listen to your kids. Often time as parents our first reaction is to talk to them. Why aren’t you wanting to go to practice? Why aren’t you trying harder? You need to change your attitude. When actually all that does is reinforces their feelings. Instead, we need to make sure there is an open door of communication and listen when they are ready to talk. If they don’t want to talk about it right away that’s okay. Wait until they are ready. These can be a lot of big emotions for them to work through and figure out what they are actually feeling. Eventually, they will feel ready to talk. 

We can help with motivating or support

At Perform Happy we offer support to athletes but we also support parents. We have a parent support Facebook page, as well as an entire “Parenting the fearful athlete” course. The parenting course is like a mini-podcast series. If you are already a Perform Happy member be sure to go check that out. If you aren’t a member yet head over and get on our waiting list at If you and your athlete feel like you are at a standstill and aren’t sure where to go next, we are continuously offering free consultations with our experienced coaches. Click here to schedule one now, it’s always free. 

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.