Extracted from John O’Sullivan’s blog:

She asked me “when do kids shift from having fun to being competitive in youth sports?” We get this question a lot, from parents of children 8-18. Our answer: They don’t! Fun and Competition are NOT mutually exclusive. Youth Sports should be both!

How adults define fun is not how children define fun

6-8soccerFun is the main reason children play sports. Every piece of research ever done, every survey ever taken, or every time we ask the children, the primary answer for why they play is fun.

Adults think fun for kids is goofing off, not listening, and not being serious. Children don’t define fun this way. In fact, Amanda Visek, in her groundbreaking Fun Maps research, decided to ask children to help her define fun. What she discovered was that children have 81 different determinants for having fun in sports!

How do they define fun?

Fun is working hard. It is being challenged and competing. It is learning a new skill, being with friends, having a coach that cares, getting compliments from coaches, and a coach who respects them. Fun in sports for kids means learning from mistakes, working together as a team, applying a skill you learned in practice in a game, improving athletic skills to play at the next level, playing against an evenly matched team, and winning. Fun is getting playing time! Yes, winning is part of the fun for kids. It is not the most important, factor, though, coming in at a lowly 48 out of 81 when the determinants are prioritized.

What we should glean from this short list of fun determinants is that children see many varying things as fun. Their definition of fun is quite encompassing. They really know how to make anything fun! Two, their definitions of fun incorporate nearly all the facets of youth sport we, as adults, hope it will accomplish for them. If we made sports about fun, following their 81 determinants as a roadmap, it would fulfill their needs and our wishes for youth sports!

We will create an experience that fully engages children, keeps them playing for a long time, helps them develop vital skills in the game and beyond, and still achieves our adult-imposed goals on the whole thing. That is a win-win for everyone. They would play more, play longer, and play better if we only made it about fun.

Lack of Fun is the number one reason kids quit sports

Why would enjoying something more ever make you compete less? The secret to competing is creating an environment that allows athletes to go all in without fear. What does this look like:

An environment that allows for mistakes, and even promotes them

Positive team dynamics

Respect and encouragement throughout the team

Agreed upon values

A coach willing to give players ownership of the experience

Last but not least, enjoyment!

This type of environment reflects Visek’s fun determinants, for as you dig deeper kids define fun as competing, being strong and confident, playing hard, setting and achieving goals, being challenged to improve and get better, practicing with specialty trainers, scrimmaging during practice, playing against an evenly matched team, playing in tournaments, and even winning medals and trophies. This list is how we would define competition. This list is all inclusive of everything many coaches argue is lost when we focus on fun, and yet, kids are telling us these things are still fun for them.

Wringing the fun out of youth sports won’t make kids compete more. It will make them compete less.

As coaches, our greatest fear should not be losing the game we had a chance to win, it should be losing the kids we had a chance to transform.

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