Putting the “Fun” Back in Youth Sports

DON DIEBOLD, DIRECTOR OF ATHLETICS: When I was a 10-year-old boy, every piece of equipment was carefully laid out and my uniform was clearly organized the night before every game. It should not have been difficult to sleep, but it always was on those nights. Why? I guess I just couldn’t wait for the fun.

Research is showing a significant decline in youth sports participation

Sadly, research is showing a significant decline in youth sports participation. Although there are many factors contributing to this decline, the number one reason cited by youth is that sports are just “not fun.”

Sports are just “not fun.”

How can we, as adults, focus on reinforcing the fun factor in our sports programs?

Amanda Visek*, an exercise science professor at George Washington University, surveyed approximately 150 children, 40 coaches, and 60 parents to identify all of the factors that make sports participation a fun prospect for kids.

She found 81 factors contributing to sports-related happiness. The top three factors were:

  • being a good sport
  • trying hard, and
  • positive coaching.

Being a Good Sport

Not surprisingly, the number one barometer of youth sports fun is the level of “good sportsmanship.” So how can we boost it up?

As adults, we can model good sportsmanship before during and after our children’s games. Before the game let your child know how proud you are of them for their courage to compete. Inspire them to participate with a positive attitude even when things aren’t going great. During the game limit your comments to praises for the team and avoid singling out your own child exclusively. If your child is upset after a game, offer help calmly, focus on life lessons, and maintain a broader perspective.

Trying Hard

The next leading contributor to fun on the field is “trying hard.” As adults, we can foster this attitude by making sure the environment in which our children play encourages learning, taking risks, and making mistakes. Throughout their lives in sports, in school, and in relationships, success will require tremendous effort. We need to give our children examples of hard work that paid off and emphasize that effort is its own reward.

Positive Coaching

The number three ingredient in the recipe for youth sports fun is “positive coaching.” We should make an effort to know and monitor our children’s coaches. Does the coach reward effort, not just results? Does the coach help players learn and improve in the sport, and help players bounce back from mistakes? Does the coach use positive reinforcement, encourage players to do their best, and listen to each player? Does the coach model respect for the rules, officials, opponents, and the game?

Winning is important, but the formation of character and development of life skills through participation in sports should begin with and be emphasized by the coach.

Regardless of sports aptitude in our children these top three factors can increase their enjoyment of the game. We can promote participation in sports by encouraging our children to try different options, embrace opportunities for unstructured “free play”, and look for ways to improve the quality and quantity of local recreational leagues.

Above all, we can make sure we continue to ask our kids what they most value in sports participation and what can better improve their enjoyment and engagement in physical activity.

*A video interview with Dr. Amanda Visek about her study is available on You Tube.

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