Photo credit to Helen Nelson.
Within youth sports, there are some (thankfully, not many) who believe the word fun and concepts such as development, winning or being the best are polar opposites. When confronted on the role of fun in sports, especially for young athletes, their response is usually along the lines of, ‘Of course they have fun. Winning is fun.’
The reality is having fun is a critical component of youth sports, not only because it’s the number one reason kids participate, but also because it plays a significant role in helping kids reach their potential.
One of the most cited reasons for elite athletes underperforming in big moments (or choking) is because they’re focused on winning. Research has shown that honing in solely on the outcome of events actually hinders athletes’ performance.
When athletes concentrate on what they need to do to be successful or their passion for the game instead, they’re more likely to perform at a high level.
It’s Just a Game
East Grand Forks native and University of North Dakota defenseman Gage Ausmus learned the importance of fun first hand during his team’s NCAA National Championship run last season.
“You have to go into every game telling yourself it’s just a game,” said Ausmus. “We played on a couple of big stages and a lot of people watching the games. You just have to get yourself in the moment and realize it’s just a game and you’re out there to have fun. I think when you’re having fun you’re at your best so that’s what you need to focus on.”
For Ausmus, the challenge of maintaining that focus has become more evident as he’s reached higher levels of hockey where expectations are bigger and mistakes are more costly.
“When you’re tense and you’re tight, you’re not making plays you would usually make,” said Ausmus. “When you’re playing on the outdoor rinks with your buddies, you can make those toe-drag plays. If you have that mindset out there on the ice, you can make those skill plays. Just remember you’re having fun out there.”
Relax, Refocus and Just Play
While it may seem like these types of performance issues only occur on grand stages such as the Olympics, they can actually happen to anyone, including young athletes and even non-athletes. Examples include public speaking, players/teams competing in big tournaments or playing in front of a parent or relative that doesn’t see many games.
Human instinct in those situations is to desperately want to perform well. That level of desire can cause the brain to focus on the outcome so much that we prevent ourselves from having success.
Luc Gerdes won a state high school hockey title with Eden Prairie in 2011 so he knows what it’s like to play at a championship level. After battling through juniors and earning a spot at Colorado College, Gerdes has discovered one of the best things team leaders can do for their teammates is encourage them to refocus and go back to having fun when things aren’t going well.
“It’s big for the older guys to sit younger guys down every once in a while and say: ‘Hey, relax. You can play,’” said Gerdes. “Just relax and don’t think so much. Just play.”
Play. Love. Excel.
In addition to fun being vital to player performance within a single game, it also plays a key role in players’ long term development. Players who enjoy a sport are more likely to continue playing, work harder in practices and games and play or practice the sport on their own time, all of which help players improve faster.
That’s why the American Development Model focuses so heavily on using a variety of fun games to teach fundamental hockey skills and athletic movements at the young ages. The goal is to get kids to experience playing the game of hockey, learn to love it and then as they get older their passion for the game will drive them to excel on their own.
So the next time you hear someone justify an emphasis on winning with the phrase “Winning is fun.”
Remind them that while no one will argue winning is fun, fun typically comes before winning. After all, hockey is a game, and it’s supposed to be fun.