Having Fun?

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Article originally posted December 2010

American Sport Education Program (ASEP) founder Rainer Martens wrote a book more than three decades ago titled Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports. The gist of the work was that organized, adult-structured and ruled sport experiences offer the opportunity for far less intrinsic enjoyment for kids than the neighborhood pick-up games kids used to engage in on a daily basis.

Though he regretted its arrival, Martens foresaw the present era of formalized sport for children four years of age on up. Play as we knew it—spontaneously devised, self-policed games among youngsters using whatever equipment was available—lost favor as unsafe, unfair, and most of all unsupervised by parents. With more mothers working away from home and unavailable to monitor activities of their own children and youngsters in the neighborhood, many parents preferred their kids to be placed in structured play environments under the watchful eyes of adults. It was reassuring to drop Jason and Jessica off to join their similarly uniformed teammates in the mighty midget league where coaches and administrators could keep watch, liability waivers were signed, and parental responsibility could be abandoned for a few hours a week.

Of course, some moms and more dads take things a whole lot more seriously. It wouldn’t do for Bridget and Brad to be just one of the kids, they need special attention and instruction to determine if that latent athletic talent (that they just know they have) can be brought to its full potential. Special, high-priced instructors and costly and time-consuming travel teams are essential, and anyway their kids want to do it, they say. Parents of young athletes that were unable to afford such tutoring and trip expenses had to hope their kid(s) impressed the team sponsor or someone affiliated with the program enough to be provided financial assistance.

So, in youth sports today, how does one define what is meant by having fun? Is it appropriate to cling to the idyllic perspective of the good ol’ playground days? Should the control and formalization insisted upon by parents, coaches, administrators, and even psychologists be met with a shrug of the shoulders, seen as an inevitable consequence of cultural, technological, and even legal changes? Or should we broaden our view of what can be fun to kids rather than judging from our own perspective?

If one accepts the notion that there’s no turning back the clock to a time when play ruled the day, then the focus can be placed on how organized sport can be as enjoyable as possible for the participants. And, along with that we can agree that there can be various degrees of fun experienced according to each situation and individual. Perhaps most importantly we can be more optimistic that every ball field and court won’t be replaced by virtual reality games on mobile electronic devices any time soon.

Surveys of athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators often produce unclear results or the inevitable outcome due to the phrasing of items in those inventories. For example, a poll of 4th-8th grade football and girls basketball players listed 11 choices, among them having fun and being with friends. So, is the fact that respondents almost unanimously cited those two motives for participating in sport particularly enlightening? Not at all. Just think back to deals that you struck with sore losers in the sandlot: “Okay, you win if you promise to keep letting us use your bat.” Winning was always secondary to keeping the games going. Yet, those that reviewed the findings were somehow astonished that winning ranked low among choices provided.

This is nothing new. We live in a constant state of contradiction. For many years adults have sought to rid youth sports of scoreboards, while at the same time we have seen expanded national television coverage of the Little League World Series and its “champion.” Adults worry that kids on losing teams won’t have fun or will suffer irreparable damage to their self-esteems. Yet, ironically, kids and their parents keep score regardless of whether an official tally is kept. They know that outcomes are determined by who scores the most runs, points, or goals. What are missing are additional, meaningful measures of success that are given similar value. And misguided attempts such as participation trophies aren’t the solution.

So, now that they’ve “protected” children from the dangers of the playground, they also seek to prevent any adverse outcome in the more structured sport setting. Thus, the advent of the every-kid-needs-a-trophy syndrome. This adult devised solution to what a vocal coalition of parents, administrators, and sport psychologists discern to otherwise be the zero sum game (winner +1, loser -1) of traditional sport competition is meaningless to the children, themselves, except when it comes time to clean the clutter of participation awards from their bedroom closets. Coaches and parents who ignore this trend and use sport to teach important life lessons provide hope for reclaiming the inherent virtues of sport participation. One of the more recent adult-conceived interventions in youth sports has the worthy goal to “inspire players of all levels to reclaim the pure enjoyment of the game...” An athletic wear company, youth sports alliance, and key sports leaders formed a coalition last summer to create a set of guidelines designed to ensure more joy, better teamwork, and clean competition in youth sport. Perhaps such formal statements and provisions can be useful and certainly reflect a group’s good intentions, but too often such pronouncements lack comprehensive grass roots implementation strategies to positively impact young athletes in a significant, tangible way.

Here’s what we propose as an alternative to grown-ups that govern youth sports granting more gratuitous awards and setting additional guidelines intended to steer kids toward good fun and sportsmanship. We suggest a short list of simple measures for adults:

• Recognize that “fun” connotes different meanings among young athletes and among adults, and an even more disparate definition between those two groups. Work with the kids to define and understand what fun means to each of them.

• Encourage kids to “play” and provide opportunities and settings in which they can do so. And, in conjunction with this, refrain from filing a lawsuit should a child return home from the sandlot or playground with a bloody nose or tears in the eyes.

• Support recreation and school sports programs’ efforts to institute quality coaching education programs, as well as coaching evaluation and retention measures.

• Involve kids in decisions. What would they like to practice, what games or drills would they like to play? Doesn’t mean you have to let them dictate the practice schedule but you might learn what’s fun to them.

• Refrain from asking young athletes “did you win” and “how many points did you score” and instead inquire about what new skills they learned, what teammates they enjoy playing with and why, what they are working on improving in practice and how they think their sport experience helps them in other aspects of their life.

• Never blame the officiating or coaching as a reason for losing in the presence of young athletes. Administrators should see to subpar performances by those that offer their services to the program. Instead, speak to children about how they can handle adversity effectively on the court and field. We can’t expect athletes to respect officials or coaches if we as adults don’t set the example.

• And, yes, do ascertain whether kids are having fun. If they indicate that they are, inquire further as to what they find most appealing about their sport participation and discuss with them their goals as athletes. If by words or actions they signal that sport is not enjoyable for them, explore why they aren’t happy in their athletic experience. Perhaps it’s a minor issue that can be resolved and they can rediscover the joy they once felt. But sometimes it’s simply best to let them opt out of the structured sport setting and engage in that sport or other physical activities in a recreational manner.

This is far from an exhaustive list, and we welcome your suggested additions to it. Or maybe you disagree with our vantage point and would like to express a different view. We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. But one thing we are certain of is that the solution to the present problems in youth sport is not more adult intervention and control. In fact, it could be as simple as letting kids play.

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