What Kids Know About Luck, Effort and Ability

You’ll never say “Lucky shot” again

Jenny Etnier, PhD

| 5 min read


Let me tell you about an experiment conducted by Dr. Mary Fry, of the University of Kansas, in which she tested whether children could fully distinguish between luck and effort

Young children (5- to 6-year-olds), children (7- to 11-year-olds), and preadolescents (12- to 13-year-olds) were asked to throw a beanbag into one of four colored baskets. In the first condition, they drew a card indicating the color of basket to aim for and then threw the bag. In the second condition, they were asked to throw the bag into a basket and then to draw a card indicating which color was the right basket to have thrown it into. 

As you read and think about this, I’m sure it’s clear that the first condition is a skill condition and the second is a luck condition. But, when the children were asked if there was any difference between the conditions, the answers differed by age group. The young children said that they could do better if they tried harder in both conditions. The next older group of children recognized that the second condition was harder, but they still believed that they could do better if they tried harder. 

Think about that — despite that trying harder would make absolutely no difference in the second condition, both of these younger groups still thought trying harder would help. By contrast, the preadolescents recognized that trying harder would help in the first condition but would not make a difference in the second.

Do you see why these examples are so important? 

If you are working with children who are younger than 12 years of age, they are unable to clearly understand how ability contributes to performance outcomes. This is why they will continue to challenge adults to foot races! 

Because of this inherent commitment to effort, it is critical that you help them to focus on effort and not on ability. At these younger ages, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. So, don’t put limits on them. Help them to value their hard work, to demonstrate persistence, to put in the effort, and to appreciate what they put into their sport more than what they get out of it. 

If you can help your athletes focus on the process rather than on the outcome, you have the potential to help them maintain joy in their sport regardless of win-loss records. And if they maintain their joy for the sport and keep trying, you just never know what might happen in terms of sports success.

Once children reach 12 years of age, they can now fully differentiate ability, luck and effort. 

Think about this time period. This is the end of sixth grade or the start of seventh grade. Middle school. Do you remember middle school? For many people, middle school was one of the toughest periods of their lives. And understanding what happens psychosocially during middle school probably helps to explain this phenomenon. 

During middle school, children start to perceive more critical evaluation from others, which can lead them to self-criticize. They now start to describe themselves as being good at certain things and bad at other things. For example, in sports they might say they are a really good forward but not a good defensive player. Or they might say that they are good at shooting but not good at passing. They will begin to pigeonhole themselves in ways that restrict their willingness to try new things and to be willing to risk failure. 

This is a time when it is important to help them further develop both a process and an outcome orientation while continuing to value effort. The middle school years can be a difficult time for young athletes, but it is one when a coach who is caring, empathetic and focused on process before outcome can help these athletes maintain their willingness to work hard in their sport.

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Dr. Jenny Etnier is the Julia Taylor Morton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where her research focuses on the cognitive benefits of physical activity. She is the author of Bring Your “A” Game: A Young Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness and Coaching for the Love of the Game: A Practical Guide for Working with Young Athletes, from which this is article adapted. A longtime youth soccer coach, Dr. Etnier is a fierce advocate for positive coaching and play, and is co-chair of MOJO’s Academic and Scientific Advisory Board.

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