Three Strategies to Help Athletes When They are Not Having Any Fun

"Did you have fun?" As the parent and coach of 3 young kids, I’ve caught myself asking this question after most practice. I’ve noticed other parents and coaches asking their kids the same. Even though we might stop asking that question as our kids get older, we are constantly looking for indications that they are having fun. And there is a good reason for that.

Research shows that having fun is the main motivation for athletes to participate in sports. Lack of enjoyment and fun is the number one reason children quit organized sports, according to a still-very-relevant study by Jean Cote et al. titled "Why Children Drop Out of Organized Sports."

With sports participation numbers dropping every year, coaches and parents are now more focused on ensuring that youth sports are always enjoyable. But it’s unrealistic to expect that sports will always be fun.  

Sports are not always going to be fun, no matter how hard we try as coaches and parents. It is uncomfortable to play in the mud, rain, or cold. It’s tough for your team to get blown out by 7 goals. And it’s not easy to practice all week to only get to stand on the sidelines and cheer for your teammates in games.  

If we want kids to have an experience that is always fun—no cold rain, no blowouts, and they get to play all the time—we should just encourage them to play more video games. Video game creators have mastered that experience for young people!

But if we want kids to grow as people and do something that is fulfilling, we should continue to encourage them to play sports, even when it’s not fun. Sports greatest opportunities for growth are typically in the things that aren't’ a lot of fun: 

  • Hard physical training
  • Losing streaks and blowouts
  • Sitting on the sidelines
  • Dealing with poor leadership
  • Trying hard and failing

With the right guidance and support from coaches and parents, all of these are opportunities to grow their resilience, selflessness, awareness, humility, and perspective on life. At some point along the journey, our kids are not going to be having a lot of fun, and there won’t be a lot we can do about it. So, what can we do in those sporting moments as coaches and parents? Here are three things we can do to support them in those moments:

3 Ways to Support Athletes When Sports Aren’t Fun

1. Create Space for More Connection

Kids don’t play sports just to play sports; they play to be with their friends. Spending time together as a team off the field creates opportunities for connections. You can create space for connection in a variety of ways, such as team meals, team outings, attending local sporting games, or going on a team hike.

2. Stop Doing the Things that Detract from the Experience

A lack of fun and enjoyment was just one of the reasons kids quit sports. Jean Cote’s study gave four other factors that contribute to kids quitting sports 

  1. Overemphasis on competition and winning
  2. Poor coaching or negative coaching experiences
  3. Over-involvement or pressure from parents
  4. Physical or emotional burnout

Coaches and parents need to stop letting winning or losing impact them so much emotionally; it doesn’t help our athletes. Parental involvement should be decreased in most situations, and coaches need to work harder to stay positive in difficult times and keep focusing on the relationships. Lastly, we have to put an end to the specialization and year-long grind of youth sports that are wearing our kids down.

3. Ask Better Questions

Next time they come home from practice or a game, try asking a question other than, “Did you have fun?” or “How’d it go?”. 

Some of my top questions to ask as a coach come from my favorite After Action Review format, W.I.L.L.:

  • What did you do WELL?
  • What’s one thing you can IMPROVE?
  • What did you LEARN about yourself?
  • What did you LEARN about your situation?

Other great questions are focused more on getting them to think of others, not just themselves, as I have previously written about

Ask better questions to help them take a healthier perspective. Then, move on. Flush the blow-out game or the sucky practice. 

Final Take

All of this is not to say that coaches, parents, and league administrators shouldn’t be working to create better conditions for kids to have more fun. When it comes to maintaining competitiveness and guaranteeing that all players have the chance to play—two things that video games excel at—we could actually learn a lot from the developers of these games, particularly at the younger age groups. Whatever the circumstances, as parents and coaches, I hope we can help our kids make the most of it. 

Citation Côté, J., Bruner, J., & Strachan, L. (1993). Why children drop out of organized sports. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 15(3), 280-297.

- JP Nerbun

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