"You're not here to have fun, you're here to work!"

*I wrote this article in April 2018 as a response to a note from a parent. I have amended and updated my original IP to reflect current youth sports issues.

I got an email from a distraught parent the other day. She described a scene where the coach was screaming at the girls after a loss. She was beside herself at how the coach treated the girls. He was demeaning, he was loud and scary, and he had lost perspective on the age he was coaching.

She said at one point the coach barked “You’re not here to have fun! You are here to work!” The coach felt the girls were not trying hard enough, were not fully engaged, and did not want to win as badly as he did. The worse they played, the more frustrated he got.

The girls were 8-years old!

This mom was so upset this one conversation would turn her child away from sports. She wanted her daughter to share the same lifelong passion and pursuit of a sport that she did. She wanted her daughter to have the great memories and experiences she had.  She wanted her daughter to have fun first and worry about “work” later.

She asked me “when do kids shift from having fun to being competitive in youth sports?”

I get this question a lot, from parents of children 8-18. My answer:

Sports never shift from one to the other! Fun and Competition are NOT mutually exclusive. Youth Sports should be both!

There is this overwhelming myth in sports that fun and competitiveness cannot coexist. To have one, you cannot have the other, and at some point, we have to choose between whether we are there to have fun in our sports experience or there to compete. Who started this?

It is a patently false myth. From youth to the professional level, fun and competition coexist. Look at some of the world’s greatest athletes and ask yourself, “are they having fun”?

The Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho was always seen smiling. Peyton Manning had so much fun he even made commercials poking fun at the ultra-competitive nature of pro sports. Julie Foudy, the World Cup, and Olympic Champion mentioned on a podcast I produced that there was never a game when she did not start laughing hysterically.  The list goes on and on. No one doubts these athletes’ competitiveness. They sure had a lot of fun doing it, though!

Fun and competition do not exist at polar ends of a continuum in youth sports. In fact, fun and competition can actually be the same concept for kids. Fun is not about deriving pleasure at all times from an activity. Having fun is more about “enjoyment” of the activity.

The difference between enjoyment and pleasure

Have you ever run an endurance event? As I often say in my talks, during mile 30 of a triathlon, do you experience any pleasure? If you are like most, probably not. You will fight on in spite of the pain.

Sports does not always have to be pleasurable; it can be demanding and challenging. Yet this can still be enjoyable, and enjoyment is a critical ingredient.

Many experts agree there are 3 critical elements that motivate children in sport: enjoyment, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation. The foundation is enjoyment. Enjoyment is about the satisfaction of improving each day and achieving your goals.

It is about being fully focused in the moment rather than stressing over mistakes made or outcomes possible.

Enjoyment also leads to an experience of autonomy. People who have greater control over their own experiences, tend to naturally enjoy them more. As we have more and more autonomy, we feel more satisfied with the experience Satisfaction, like mile 30 in the triathlon, leads us to enjoyment.

This ownership gives rise to intrinsic motivation. We do not perform the activity for anyone or anything outside of us but do it for some internal motivation. We enjoy doing it because it is ours to do and control, and it gives us a deep sense of personal satisfaction. Does this mean we will always derive pleasure from the activity? Goodness no.

Many of us will look at a tough practice, a hard-fought loss, or a bad day in the trenches and think kids will not stick it out because it did not bring them pleasure. Others believe we will never see that hard-fought game or the grind in the trenches because we are making the game too pleasurable and not making it challenging.

If we want kids to stay in sports and learn those valuable life skills and character traits that come from a little grinding and a lot of growth, then enjoyment must be the goal. The right approach will bring enjoyment.

How adults define fun is not how children define fun

Fun is the main reason children play sports. Every piece of research ever done, every survey ever taken, or every time we ask the children, the primary answer for why they play is fun. 

Adults think fun for kids is goofing off, not listening, and not being serious. Children don’t define fun this way. In fact, Amanda Visek, in her groundbreaking Fun Maps research, decided to ask children to help her define fun. What she discovered was that children have 81 different determinants for having fun in sports! 

How do they define fun? 

Fun is working hard. It is being challenged and competing. It is learning a new skill, being with friends, having a coach that cares, getting compliments from coaches, and a coach who respects them. Fun in sports for kids means learning from mistakes, working together as a team, applying a skill you learned in practice in a game, improving athletic skills to play at the next level, playing against an evenly matched team, and winning. Fun is getting playing time! Yes, winning is part of the fun for kids. It is not the most important, factor, though, coming in at a lowly 48 out of 81 when the determinants are prioritized.

What we should glean from this short list of fun determinants is that children see many varying things as fun. Their definition of fun is encompassing. They really know how to make anything fun!

Secondly, their definitions of fun incorporate nearly all the facets of youth sport we, as adults, hope it will accomplish for them. If we made sports about fun, following their 81 determinants as a roadmap, it would fulfill their needs and our wishes for youth sports! 

We will create an experience that fully engages children, keeps them playing for a long time, helps them develop vital skills in the game and beyond, and still achieves our adult-imposed goals on the whole thing. That is a win-win for everyone. They would play more, play longer, and play better if we only made it about fun.

Lack of Fun is the number one reason kids quit sports 

Amanda Visek is now working on the “Not Fun Maps,” because she also discovered children quit sports when they no longer have fun. It is the number one reason they quit, and she wants to know how they define “Not Fun” so we can stop making it not fun. While the research is not yet published, most of the “not fun” determinants have to do with adults!

If we force the fun from youth sports, we risk losing the kids completely. If they are not in sports, we miss this chance to use it as the vehicle for life skills, strong values, great role models that we so desperately want for our kids. It should be our primary goal to make sports fun, modeled after how kids define it, so we are building amazing people beyond the game.

If youth sports are fun, will kids compete less?

Why would enjoying something more ever make you compete less? The secret to competing is creating an environment that allows athletes to go all in without fear. Every single morning my wife and I wake up at 4:30 am to cycle, run, do yoga, or strength train for at least an hour. Part of the allure to do was to compete with my wife on our Apple Watches and to compete with the guy in the mirror.

Every morning I compete. I have to admit, I did not enjoy it all in the beginning, but the more I enjoyed it, the more excited I was about doing it. Now I love it so much I try to talk others into doing it with us! Enjoying it more didn’t make me compete less, I recruited others so I could compete more!

What does an environment that increases enjoyment and fosters competition look like?

  • An environment that allows for mistakes, and even promotes them
  • Positive team dynamics – healthy competition, support, and accountability
  • Respect and encouragement throughout the team
  • Agreed upon values that everyone upholds as standards of excellence
  • A coach willing to give players ownership of the experience
  • Last but not least, enjoyment!

This type of environment reflects Visek’s fun determinants. If you dig deeper into her research you discover kids define fun as competing, being strong and confident, playing hard, setting and achieving goals, being challenged to improve and get better, practicing with specialty trainers, scrimmaging during practice, playing against an evenly matched team, playing in tournaments, and even winning medals and trophies.

This list is how we would define competitionThis list is all-inclusive of everything many coaches argue is lost when we focus on fun, and yet, kids are telling us these things are still fun for them.

Wringing the fun out of youth sports won’t make kids compete more. It will make them compete less and the research shows us!

How to Help Sports Become Both Fun and Competitive

If you want to make your sports experience both fun and competitive, try these six things:

  1. Leave time for play: if you want people to compete at game speed, make it look like a game. At a minimum, 60-70% of your training should be game-based. Add defenders, add constraints if you like, coach through the game, but let them play. They will choose to compete. This also creates better skill translation to the game. 
  2. Focus on values such as fearlessness and accountability: if athletes are not afraid to make mistakes and are willing to be held accountable when they do not bring the right effort and focus, they will compete harder. This is what the best professional coaches do (see, for example, Karch Kiraly and USA Volleyball) and you should too. Karch Kiraly does not want perfect practices, he wants ugly practices where players learn to grow.
  3. Stop screaming at every mistake: nothing stops a player competing faster than getting yelled at for every mistake. If they compete with 100% focus and effort and still make a mistake, they are entitled to that. That is called learning. Mistakes are road signs to help us find our way along the path of skill acquisition. They either tell us to keep going or change course a bit. Besides, the "learning part of the brain" shuts down when someone is being yelled at repeatedly.
  4. Focus on the root word for Competition - Competere: Competere is Latin for "to strive together". Children need to have a healthy understanding of what real competition is. It is not about destroying the enemy or getting the better of someone by cheating. It is about iron sharpening iron. They should cherish the challenge and respect their opponents because it is only through healthy competition that real skill is honed. Teach them to compete with honor and they will compete harder.
  5. Play for something: Let the winners earn something for winning in training. At times, you can even let your athletes decide what the winners get for winning. It might be picking up cones, a quick physical activity, making a rule in the next game, but let the winners actually win something and people will compete. We have to temper our win at all costs mentality but at the same time, deliver lifelong goals. Life will have its wins and losses for our children and they must be willing to manage the emotions around these. Sports is a laboratory for them to practice winning and losing gracefully. 
  6. Let them choose: Whether it is choosing the game, deciding on the practice topic, or “running” halftime, when kids are given ownership, their enjoyment will increase and with it that competitive fire will be stoked because they are competing to prove their ideas correct. 

Can sports be both fun and competitive? You bet!

In fact, it MUST be. If sports aren’t fun, kids quit. And if they quit, we lose the opportunity to impact their lives for decades to come. We miss that chance to change a life beyond the game. That should scare us more than anything else. 

As coaches, our greatest fear should not be losing the game we had a chance to win, it should be losing the kids we had a chance to transform.

Make your practices and games a boatload of fun. Add competitive games to your sessions. Find an appropriate level of competition. And let them compete. And when the game ends, move on.

Sports isn’t work. 

It’s play. It’s fun..and it’s competitive, but it’s play. Just let the kids play, and the kids will compete.



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