Tip #1 Understand the natural process of development
The object of the game is to make them fall in love with soccer and make them want to play. What I teach parents is to understand two things here. Reinforcement and Pairing. In Behavior Analysis, Positive Reinforcement is described as “The presentation of a stimulus that increases the future likelihood that a behavior will occur. It is important to note that “positive” does not necessarily mean “good” or “desirable”. Examples of positive reinforcement: 1) Giving a child a high five after they kick or dribble the ball increases the odds that they will want to kick or dribble the ball again next time”. (www.behaviorbabe.com). We do this all the time with kids, it’s the reason that they model us so much, they get praised. The second factor is “Pairing”, that is described as “The process of creating (or re-creating) an enjoyable, reinforcing, and pleasurable relationship between parent and child, where the child comes to view the parent as not just the giver of reinforcement, but as actual reinforcement”.
Behavior Analysis is my field of study, so it may be a little confusing. What these two definitions tell us about behavior is that in order for a child to “learn” to love the game, they must first receive some type of reinforcement from the activity (they must feel good when they kick the ball). Parents can provide positive reinforcement by giving a high five, cheering for them, and/or telling them how great they did (remember we are talking about toddlers, so everything they do must be the greatest of all time!). The child will then begin to PAIR the two, playing Soccer with dad is Fun.
Tip #2 Don’t force the Toddler to play soccer!
Never force your toddler to play. This can go very bad as the child could learn to distinguish Soccer with punishment. Wait for the right time. Remember that punishment will reduce behavior. The last thing we want is to reduce the toddler’s behavior of playing soccer or have a bad experience. During my consulting with parents and with my own kids, I have witnessed times when kids just don’t want to play, regardless of how much the game may mean to the parent or teammates.
Tip #3 Soccer Environment
To combat a child that doesn’t want to play, you need to set up an environment that can nurture soccer players. For example, buy a few soccer balls and leave them throughout the home. You can kick a ball around or just dribble and act like it’s a lot of fun. The child at some point will want to join and see what all the fuss is about. Why is the parent having so much fun? And they will want to feel that same Reinforcement. You can also watch soccer on TV or friends or relatives that play. The point is to demonstrate to the child that soccer can be fun, so that the toddler can try playing soccer. Once the toddler starts or wants to try soccer, that is your opportunity to use all of your reinforcement energy and provide the toddler with lots of praise, high fives, and cheering whenever he/she does anything remotely close to what could be considered soccer. You must make this enjoyable for the toddler so that he can start pairing soccer with Fun!
You can buy something inexpensive that the child may like. For example, my youngest daughter wanted a pair of indoor shoes like her older sister when she was 4. She said she wanted them to play indoor soccer just like her older sister. Of course we bought them because it was a minimal investment for another opportunity to create some positive reinforcement (Buy the shoes, she wants to play). But parents can use anything to create this positive reinforcement. One time it was a little soccer bouncy ball that cost a quarter. Again, what you are trying to do is create that environment and reinforcement that involvement with soccer is good and you approve of it. In general, kids search for the approval of their parents, so if you approve them being around and involved with soccer, the kids will appreciate that.
There is no need for structure at this age. Let them play wherever, whenever they want. And sometimes in the middle of playing soccer, they may want to play volleyball or basketball and start dribbling. As long as they continue to be engaged with the ball is all that matters. Eventually they return to kicking it, because it’s the easiest thing to do. You can model by dribbling the ball yourself or kicking it, just don’t make the child upset. We want them to enjoy playing with the ball. So dribbling with the hands is better than nothing at this age. Remember we are trying to increase their creativity, coordination, and love for the ball. Please do not get obsessed with technique at this time, they will have plenty of time to work on that when they gain some type of coordination. But you definitely want to reinforce when they do use proper technique. For example “hey that was a great job using the inside part of your foot” or “nice, with the laces”. It’s all about Fun!