Have you ever noticed how in many youth sport settings, especially for more competitive levels of play, the word fun seems to be viewed negatively? Prevailing wisdom dictates that in order for young athletes to truly reach their potential they must be focused, committed and intense at earlier and earlier ages.
Yet, when you listen to athletes at the highest level of their sport, fun or enjoyment seems to have played a key role in their journey to success.
For some coaches and parents, these conflicting concepts can create confusion. The good news is emerging research is shining a better light on what fun really means to players and its role in youth sports.
“When you look at the science, we know that fun is the number one determinant of why kids play, and the lack of fun is the number one reason why we lose kids from sport,” said Dr. Amanda Visek, a sport psychologist, researcher and professor at George Washington University.
Visek also points out that role of fun in the success of elite athletes isn’t just perception. Studies by the USOC of Olympic athletes from multiple time periods and across all sports have shown top athletes, “talk about fun as a central theme for getting started in sport and for their motivation to truly pursue the sport.”
What is Fun?
While research has consistently shown the importance of fun in participation and reaching the highest levels of sport, coaches, parents and board members have largely been left to their own definitions of fun when creating the youth sport environment.
“It’s this sort of elusive, emotive feeling,” said USA Hockey Female ADM Manager Heather Mannix, who was a part of Visek’s research team. “There’s nothing out there that concretely defines fun. We know when we’re having it. We definitely know when we’re not having it. How do we take that experience that we feel and understand how we build that experience for kids?”
Since the most reliable way to determine what makes sports fun for kids is to ask them directly, that’s exactly what Visek, Mannix and their team did.
They worked with a community to have a cross section of athletes (boys and girls, 8U to high school, travel and rec programs, over 75% played multiple sports, etc.) brainstorm every part of the sport experience that was fun for them. The same group of players were later tasked with sorting the list of fun activities into groups, and finally, the players, as well as parent and coaches from the same community, rated the fun concepts on a scale from 1 to 5.
“They actually identified 81 specific actions and behaviors that defined what makes playing sports fun for them,” said Mannix. “It operationally defined what makes sports fun from the voices of kids.”
Fun vs. Development
The research team expected the results to challenge many of the preconceived notions our society has about fun, but some of the data even surprised them.
“When I start talking about fun in front of coaches, I see some winces, some eye rolls,” said Mannix. “We think of fun as synonymous with goofing off, that it detracts from athlete development or that it’s mutually exclusive from athlete development.”
As Visek and Mannix delved deeper into the data from their research, it became very clear that perception is much more myth than reality.
“If you see some of the things they identify, we have working hard, trying hard, making a good play by scoring, using a skill you learned in practice in a game, learning and improving,” said Mannix. “What you start to see is the connection between development, learning and improving, and how that is a huge component of fun. They are very tightly married. They are not separate.”
Visek takes it even farther saying:
“Fun is athletic development. It is what fuels kids. It is not goofing off and playing around. It is task oriented. It is driven by learning and improving.”
Comparing Gender, Age & Level of Play
One of the most intriguing discoveries of the research is how consistent players’ answers were across groups society typically believes have different desires and expectations of sport.
“This data flies in the face of gender norms, culture stereotypes, whether we hold these consciously or unconsciously,” said Visek. “The nice thing about this is it simplifies fun. How we construct our practice sessions for boys or girls, when it comes to athlete development, these kids are asking for the exact same thing, whether they’re younger or older or whether they’re rec or travel.”
This is where the research team sees eye rolls turn into vocal skepticism. After all, how can it be possible for a seven-year-old girl who is just playing for “fun” and a 16-year old boy who wants to play beyond high school to want the same things from their hockey experience?
“We get a lot of pushback on this,” said Mannix. “We inherently think that boys and girls are different. They have to be different. What they’re telling us is they’re looking for the same things. These things are the most important to them in terms of creating the most fun experience.”
“What fun looks like to an eight-year-old may look different to an 18-year old, but what you need to understand is the underlying principles, they still want an environment that allows them to try hard, that allows them to compete. Competing for an eight-year-old in sharks and minnows looks different than competing for an 18-year old in a small area game. That compete may look different and that’s okay, but that competition is what makes sports fun for them.”
The Greatest Disconnect
In addition to comparing players across different subgroups, the research team compared the players’ ratings with how parents and coaches rated the fun concepts in terms of how they believe players would rate them.
“Players and parents were largely on the same page. Younger players and their coaches were also largely on the same page,” said Visek. “When we compare older players and their coaches, that’s where a gap occurs.”
“One of the biggest differences that we saw is trying hard,” said Mannix. “Older players are still saying that trying hard is the most important part of fun. Coaches are saying there’s no way my kids say trying hard is fun. I can’t get them to try hard if my life depended on it.”
To make the disconnect even more intriguing, this age range, around 12-14, is also when youth sports witness the highest dropout rate, and the lack of fun is their primary reason for quitting.
“This is the first data we have I think in the sport science literature that really starts to help us understand this disconnect in fun and what coaches’ understanding of what players’ needs actually are,” said Visek. “That discordance that is occurring there starts to helps us understand a little more why kids are dropping out in that adolescent age range.”
And the good news is what coaches want for players is more similar to what players want from sport than they realize.
“Kids want to develop,” concluded Visek. “Developing is fun.”
It’s just up to us as coaches, parents and administrators to create an environment that fuels it.