At some point whilst watching your child play sport there will be many obstacles and challenges for your child to face and overcome. How do you handle those as a parent? What strategies do you have in place? Is your child determined or do they give up on a task quickly? What can you do about it?
Does sport appeal to people who already have determination, or can people develop this quality through the experience of physical activity? No one would dispute that persistence is a positive personal quality, so if it can be improved, that would be a considerable justification for those experiences which could enhance it. Research suggests that willpower can be developed, but it is not inevitable: it requires teaching.
Determination is required in things which have a medium term benefit, but a short term cost. Where there is an intellectual value in persisting, but an emotional barrier of discomfort to surmount in order to access the positive impact. Health promoting physical activity is one of the greatest examples of this, and therefore an unrivalled environment in which to develop this quality.
So, how can this determination be taught and developed?
The starting point is the focus on the desirable medium term benefit. That might be health, competitive success, social inclusion or body shape. If this value is not recognised and relevant to the individual, then there is no incentive to persist. The short term suffering has to be connected to a greater purpose. It requires an understanding of personal satisfaction; the sense of worth that comes from achieving something of value.
The second is the acknowledgement that there will be stages at which there will temptation to stop, or to give up. If these are identified in advance, and strategies chosen ahead of time to deal with them, there is maximum chance of this being achieved. This must be overtly linked the feeling of satisfaction that ensues from overcoming the challenge. It helps to relate it to previous personal experience, where the temptation has been present, and overcome. Learning determination, and developing willpower, is about understanding that there will be emotional pressure to abandon the task, but knowing that the ultimate sense of positive achievement will make self denial worthwhile. It is also vital to understand that the task is possible for the individual, and that persistence will find reward. If the level of challenge is too high – relative to current physical condition, or mental strength – then the result is only failure. This can quickly become the expectation that justifies withdrawal of effort.
It helps if the individual has chosen her own challenge. If the task belongs to the parent, the motivation is less strong; if the child can set a goal of their own, there is greater personal ownership. This means that not all children will have the same task; for example, they will not all line up to run the same distance. There should also be choice between maximal and sub-maximal output. Schools/Clubs are tempted to present all conditioning tasks as maximal ones, which are timed and measured for comparison. This is contrary to the way many adults exercise, where identified training thresholds can lead to desirable adaptations without the stress of exhaustion.
Also significant is the place of parent example. If persistence is recognised as difficult, but desirable, then parents can have an inspirational impact by sharing the experience, and showing themselves willing to also face the challenge.
Determination can be improved. Through teaching and coaching. Like any other educational adaption, it requires the learning experience to be carefully planned with specific outcomes clearly in mind. But lessons and coaching sessions with this as a primary purpose would probably look considerably different.