The Fun Factor in Kids' Sports

Fostering fun keeps more kids in the game.

Girl teammates on playing field
Spotlight teamwork for more sports fun. Blend Images - Moxie Productions/Getty Images

What do you most hope your kids are getting out of their participation in youth sports? Sure, there is lots to learn from playing sports, and physical activity is almost always beneficial. But most of all, I want my kids to have fun when they're playing sports! It's not just because I want them to be happy. The fun factor keeps kids motivated. It gets them out of bed early, helps them bounce back from disappointment, pushes them to try just a little bit harder to master something new.

So making sure sports are fun is important; research shows that when kids aren't having fun, they tend to drop out of youth sports. To learn more about the elusive fun factor, a group of researchers at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University asked a group of youth soccer players, coaches, and parents for help completing the sentence "One thing that makes playing sports fun for players is…" Through brainstorming and concept mapping, they came up with a list of 81 "determinants of fun." These are specific behaviors that help kids enjoy sports. And winning? It actually ranks near the bottom of those 81! Being a good sport, trying hard, and having a positive coach topped the list.

Specifically, what do kids find fun about being a good sport? Fun determinants in that category included "playing well together as a team," "getting help from teammates," and even "warming up and stretching together as a team."

Notable "trying hard" behaviors are "working hard," "being strong and confident," "exercising and being active," and "setting and achieving goals." Look at that: So many of the values adults want kids to learn from sports, kids believe are fun!

And what does it mean to have a positive coach? Listen up, coaches: You can help your players have a good experience if you "treat players with respect," "allow mistakes, while staying positive," and participate with players during practice.

Winning Isn't Everything

... And neither is stuff. "In the youth sport culture today we place such a great significance on winning," said Amanda Visek, PhD, the study's lead author. "This study is helpful, in that the data really give light to the fact that when it comes to creating a culture of fun, it’s really about the process of learning and the process of playing, rather than materialistic or ostentatious things—like swag or getting metals and trophies. These are things that a lot of times adults tend to place greater emphasis on than the children do themselves."

In fact, kids put external rewards at the bottom of the fun list, saying they don't play sports to have "nice gear or equipment," to wear "a special, cool uniform" or even to receive snacks or treats after a game! (Listen up, one-upping parents!)

Make Sports More Fun Now

Several examples of the "fun determinants" are above. Here are more that parents and coaches can implement now:

  • Coaches: Be clear and consistent when you communicate with players.
  • Teach new skills.
  • Give players enough playing time.
  • Try sports camp.
  • Parents: Show good sportsmanship too!
  • Praise kids when they play well.
  • Run practices that are well organized.
  • Let kids play creatively.

Source:

Visek, AJ; Achrati, SM; et al. The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, in press, July 2014.

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