While you would think that the primary focus of youth sport practices and games is to have fun, more often than not kids experience stuff that’s not so fun. Today, we have kids as young as 4-5 years old practicing multiple times a week, and being trained as though they are mini-professional athletes. The problem is that research studies have consistently shown that the #1 reason why kids play sports is to have FUN, yet “fun” is an ingredient in youth sports that seems to be slipping away.
Kids can learn AND have fun
Coaching kids in sports can include both creating a fun environment and teaching kids how to develop sport skills. If we study youth sports history in America the last few decades you will see the following trends have occurred:
- Prior to around the 1990’s, kids simply played sports for their local teams. There weren’t travel or elite-leagues, nor was there a dedicated focus on developing young athletes so that they could one day earn college athletic scholarships.
- Next, travel leagues began to boom in the 1990’s when more athletically talented kids could compete against others with similarly superior athletic skills and abilities. Recreation leagues, on the other hand, were the choice for kids less focused on developing athletic talents and more interested in having a fun sport experience.
- Today, travel leagues still provide kids a more intense sport training experience, but recreation leagues seem to be slowly incorporating some of the same intensity – and at a cost to providing kids a fun experience. This “bleeding” between the types of leagues has presented a challenge for youth sport leaders to not create a general youth sport paradigm that focuses on intensity over fun.
The good news is that fun and serious sport training don’t have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. Coaches can make every practice and game both a fun experience as well as a place where kids are taught sport skills and held accountable to upholding team expectations and rules. Remember, kids play sports to have fun, not work at a full-time job.
Lack of fun drives burnout, quitting
It’s pretty simple: When kids stop having fun playing sports and instead feel sports are like a job, an entire host of problems can quickly develop. To begin with, the odds of a sports injury dramatically increase, primarily because kids tend to daydream and allow their minds to wander when going through boring and repetitive sports drills. When your head isn’t in the game, it’s real easy to experience a serious injury from even the slightest contact.
Another problem kids experience when they no longer view sports as fun is sports burnout, a condition that can lead to poor stress coping that includes acting out, anger, withdrawal, and substance abuse. Additionally, many kids prematurely quit sports because they don’t see things getting any better, when really all that it would take to keep them involved in sports is to have fun. Again, it’s important to remember we can do both — we can teach kids sport skills, and we can do this while providing them a fun (and meaningful) life experience.
Youth sports are becoming more serious every year, making the job of creating a fun experience that much more challenging for parents and coaches. There are very serious consequences for kids when we, the adults, lose sight of how important having fun is as a catalyst for motivation, focus, and ultimately terrific life learning experiences. Remember, most kids just want to go out there and run around, enjoy the company of friends, and feel good about the efforts they make for the team. What most kids are not looking for is the exact opposite — an experience based on heavy discipline, fear, and punishment.