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Having Fun More Important Than Winning For Most Kids

Young athletes are not pint-sized professional athletes. They don't earn performance -based bonuses. They aren't going to be paid a dime more for scoring three goals per game than for scoring three goals in the entire season, or for being on a championship team instead of the team in the cellar.

So we need to treat them as kids, not major leaguers.

Fun tops reasons for sports participation

In an oft-cited study, the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University asked ten thousand junior high and high school students to list their twelve top reasons for participating in sports. At the top of the list for both boys and girls was "to have fun." Girls ranked winning as the least important reason; boys rated winning eighth.

A recent study by researchers at George Washington University1 reported similar results.  9 of 10 kids said "fun" is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, they offered up 81 reasons- and ranked "winning" at number 48. Young girls gave it the lowest ratings.

Bobby Hosea talking to kids in Grand Prairie, TX

Ask kids about what they want to get out of sports, and the vast majority will say competitive games in which everyone plays and has fun. Given a choice between fun and winning, most would say having fun. They would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team. Believe it or not, this attitude persists through high school, where you would think that kids would begin to value winning over playing. Three out of four high school athletes, regardless of gender, would still prefer to play and lose than sit and win (although twice as many boys than girls said winning was essential for an enjoyable sports experience.

Children aren't born competing; it's something they learn. The best thing we can do for our kids, as parents and coaches, is to keep the amount of competition in youth sports from becoming excessive, to make having fun and learning the sport as important, if not more important than winning, especially for younger children. They will have a lifetime of competition soon enough. 

Fun and athletic success 

It is a myth that fun has to be sacrificed if a child is to succeed at sports. Indeed, the only way an athlete will continue to play sports - regardless of level of ability - is if he or she is having fun. Athletes have to practice hard to reach an elite level. If it all work and no play, they simply won't keep playing. Success is determined by the player's own desire to succeed, which comes from a love of the game.

When children are having fun they are more relaxed and better able to learn. A July 2004 Harris Interactive Youth Query of eight-to eighteen- year-olds found that most quit playing at thirteen or fourteen and that the number-one reason they did, cited by four out of ten, was because they stopped having fun. They survey found that the decision to quit had less to do with that boy's or girl's own skills - or lack of skills - than with pressure from adults who acted as if each game was the seventh game of the World Series and the child's need to preserve a positive self-image.

A survey conducted for the Women's Sports Foundation by Harris Interactive of 2,185 third- through 12th-grade girls and boys confirmed these findings: the number one reason for dropping out of sports, cited by 38% of girls and 39% of boys, was "not having fun."

Competition and collaboration

As children grow, mature, and improve their skills in playing a particular sport, they begin to see a pattern of successes and failures. Trained coaches call this "self-discovery," and it is a very important part of the learning process. Parents should encourage it.  Youth players need the freedom to experiment in practice and games, to take risks, to be creative. If winning is the only measure of "success," such experimentation is stifled and player development stunted. A successful competition is one where every player on both teams contributes, does his best, and respects his teammates, his opponents, and the rules.

While encouraging this learning process, keep in mind:

  • If you weren't at your child's game or practice, ask, "Tell me about your game" and "Did you and your team have fun today?" instead of "Did you win?" or "How many goals did you score?" Asking your child an open-ended question or whether he had fun invites a response and is more likely to lead to further conversation than asking whether he won because it shows that you are concerned about what matters most to him: having fun.
  • In talking with your son or daughter about the sport they are playing, emphasize the strongest aspect of their game and the new skills they are learning. Recount for them the play in which you saw them demonstrate that new skill. This is the type of positive reinforcement that helps your son or daughter to appreciate the new skills they have learned and how to sharpen them. 

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins) by Brooke de Lench.

Additional sources:

Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2008). Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Visek, Amanda J. et al. Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation. J Phys Activity & Health. 2014.

Updated February 20, 2015.


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