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What Makes Sports Fun for Kids?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Hint: it’s not “winning.”

Winning not only isn’t “everything” or “the only thing” it’s near the bottom of what children say makes playing sports fun. Instead, kids say what makes sports fun is being a good sport, trying hard, and having positive coaching.

In a really interesting study, a research team from George Washington University led by Amanda Visek asked 142 youth soccer players, 37 youth coaches and 57 parents to brainstorm a list of everything that makes playing sports fun. All the ideas were pooled, then sorted into 81 factors of fun. Then all the participants were asked to rank the 81 factors based on importance, frequency of appearance, and feasibility for everyday sports. They came up with the top 11 items, including being a good sport, trying hard, positive coaching, learning and improving, game time support, games, practices, team friendships, mental bonuses, team rituals, and swag. Winning didn’t make the list.

The bottom line: having fun is fun. And what makes anything fun is being challenged, getting help when you need it, being nice to other people, and feeling good about yourself and your friends. Just because sports has an element of competition and winning doesn’t mean that competition and being the best matter most. They don’t.

So here are some ideas to consider, based on this information:

  1. Don’t ask about the score. This is a challenge. We’re so used to asking our kids first who won or if they themselves made any goals or runs. Just don’t do it. Ask instead if they had fun.
  2. Don’t obsess about your own child’s (or other children’s) ability. This means you don’t ask the coach to give your child extra playing time because he’s the best player and it also means you don’t put your child through hours of remedial practice to make him the best player. It means you don’t groan when less-capable children are put on the field when the game is on the line. This isn’t about winning. Really, it isn’t.
  3.  Don’t make a big deal out of medals, ribbons and trophies. Swag is important, as the study demonstrated, but swag really is a reminder of the fun the team had, not of how winning the season was. Separate fun and winning in your mind. Celebrate fun.
  4. Do ask your child what makes playing her sport enjoyable. Start her own brainstorm list and then chunk all the ideas into groups that seem logical to her and to you and then ask her to rank them. You and your child might find out something interesting about what’s important in playing the game. See if her results are similar to those of the study.

The secret to keeping a child engaged in a sport over time – long enough to get really good at it, if that’s your wish – lies not in winning but in having a good time. Having a good time depends on feeling good about oneself and one’s team. It’s that simple.

Winning really isn’t the only thing. Having fun is.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.