When I was a kid playing sports in the 1970’s, times were different. Back then, kids didn’t specialize in one sport, didn’t compete on travel teams, didn’t try to play multiple sports concurrently, and didn’t experience sports burnout. Youth sports were simpler, and there seemed to be a greater focus on enjoying the experience, as opposed to playing sports to be noticed for a future college athletic scholarship. Kids regularly played pickup games at local baseball fields, backyards, and empty fields. Were sports better back then? I guess that’s up to you to decide, but what we likely can agree on is that sports were quite different.
Fun or business?
One of the common themes I witness at my office when working with student athletes are the struggles many kids experience keeping sports fun. Interestingly, while countless sport psychology studies have consistently shown that fun is the #1 response why kids play sports, we have somehow pushed fun to the backseat and replaced it with intensity. When we tilt the youth sport experience this way (prioritizing intensity over fun), a number of dominoes often fall as a result:
- More kids experience sport burnout
- Some kids quit sports prematurely
- Fewer kids play pickup games (mostly because they are burned out and/or simply don’t have the time)
- More sports injuries occur, including concussions
- Schedules become tighter, often preventing kids from doing other things they enjoy in life
Admittedly, getting the fun/intensity calibration just right is a challenging task. As a general rule of thumb (using a normative sport participation model), it makes sense that as kids age up, sports become more serious with less of an emphasis on making every moment simply an exercise in fun. Still, it makes a lot of sense to regularly monitor how we are experiencing youth sports today — especially as this applies to sport experiences that don’t seem to have fun as any kind of objective or priority.
Can fun & business co-exist?
Breaking down the examination of how we experience youth sports in America today, a fundamental question jumps out: Can kids still have fun while pushing to maximize their sport abilities? Are the variables fun and intensity mutually exclusive, or are there creative ways to do both? I believe both things can happen together, but it takes a commitment toward this goal and a willingness to put in the work. Ideally, the ultimate goal should be to create exciting, competitive sport environments for kids, but to also make sure the experience is still fun.
Coaches, take the team for ice cream!
Ask any kid from the 70’s and 80’s the best memories from their youth sport days and you will soon hear the trips to Dairy Queen after big wins. Talk about fun! As kids today put in countless hours of training and competing, it’s not uncommon to get caught up in it all that we get away from just hanging out, laughing, and sharing good times together. One way for coaches to lead on this front is to keep the team together after a game and head over for ice cream.
While it may seem like an insignificant proposition (or even a waste of time to some), I would argue the opposite is true, and that taking a brief respite away from the intensity of youth sport to enjoy an ice cream cone may be just what kids need right now. So that’s it — that’s the assignment — surprise your team this 4th of July holiday week by pointing them toward your local ice cream shop and buying the players a round on the house. If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to help kids battle through staleness, burnout, pressure, and fatigue, this trip will create big smiles and quickly bring fun back into the equation.