Motivating for Success … in the Pool by Lisa Jones


jones_lisaHere in Texas, we are in the midst of swim team season.  Both of our older kids are enjoying their third year on our neighborhood team swimming with their friends.

Our son is competitive and not only loves to beat his time, but also picks out bigger kids he wants to best during a meet.  Being competitive myself, I love that it motivates him to do better and try harder.  However, even when he doesn’t medal or beat the big kids, he just shakes it off and asks for ice cream.

Our oldest daughter is a different story entirely.  Last year, if we encouraged her to beat her time or swim faster, she would actually swim slower and remind me that she is out there to have fun and enjoy herself.  While I personally find her attitude completely frustrating, how do I argue with having fun?

Before starting this year’s season, my husband and I really had to “encourage” our daughter to continue with swim team. Our goals for the kids swimming are to encourage great physical activity, to experience the fun social atmosphere of the team and to improve their times throughout the year.  To ensure the children had the skills necessary to show improvement in swim team, we enrolled them in neighborhood swim lessons in January.  It felt important for me to give our daughter all the support she would need to excel and improve once swim team started, because she can be very pessimistic about her swimming and not want to try.

Because you need more than just skills to do well in a competitive environment, my husband and I decided to offer incentives or rewards for each time improvement per swim meet.  Our kids get to decide what they are swimming for, within reason. At the first meet, our daughter decided her treat would be Breakfast in Bed with her favorite foods.  To our surprise, she smashed all her previous swim records!  The next morning, the kids were presented a menu in bed by a maître d that suspiciously resembled their dad and they had a marvelous time.

At our last meet, we decided our son could have his first friend sleepover for a reward and if he improved more than one time, then they could sleep in the tent inside the playroom.  He liked that!  Our boy swam for a 3rd and a 1st place in his age group.  Very exciting!

Some people might argue that I’m bribing my children to participate or do well, but we consider that if they aren’t self motivated by improvement or competition then we need to find a healthy way to motivate their success.  Will it work forever?  Probably not.  However, since we have an oldest child who wants to quit sports when she struggles, motivation is imperative.

Last year, she was crushed knowing that she wasn’t swimming as well as her friends.  Even though we never discussed her rank with her, she knew she was at the very bottom of the age group.  This year, she wants to try, if for nothing else than a reward.  It gives her something to focus on rather than where her time falls in her group.  Her goal is attainable; who can argue with a tenth of a second?  Especially when you show the child how long less than a second really is.

I do have to brag on her improvement for a minute.  Last year, she fell around 38 out of 40 girls in her age group at every meet.  This year she has received a 10th and a 13th place out of 40. I love that after two years of telling her to keep trying and practicing she is finally able to see that practice does pay off.  She knows she is swimming better and that knowledge gives her the confidence to do more.  Hopefully this experience will inspire her to not give up the next time she struggles with a sport or in school.

Copyright 2010 Lisa Jones


About Author

Lisa Henley Jones is a former stay-at-home mom who discovered a new career as an online marketer/social media manager. She blogs at Of Sound Mind and Spirit with her sister, Shelly Kelly, about faith and family life. During the hot summers in Houston, Lisa can be found by the pool eating popsicles with her husband and three school-aged children.


  1. Lisa, I wish I could get my mom to chime in on this one – she was always a big fan of the “motivation by bribery” tactic… kidding! No, I also quite frequently used rewards like you describe (although never for grades for some reason). I especially love your “family friendly” ideas like breakfast in bed – that’s awesome! Curious to hear what other moms and dads think of this approach to motivating kids.

  2. It was a big success in our house though was counterintuitive to me at first. Was having study issues with my son when he was in middle school and happened to talk to a colleague at work, a psychiatrist as it happened. He told me he had the same issues with his son and found reward worked better than punishment. He reasoned that we worked for reward, after all, so why would we expect differentt from our kids. Tried it and it worked and never looked back. Never anything gigantic but clearly positive reinforcement for work well done.

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