A Dozen Ways for Coaches to Make Sports More Fun
Why should a coach make sports fun?
Aren’t coaches supposed to teach sports skills, develop competent athletes and develop a winning mentality?
Aren’t sports about learning life lessons like coping with failure, good sportsmanship, discipline and goal setting?
Well yes, of course, but sports are also about fun.
“Fun” is a complicated word for me. Look, I love to have fun as much as the next person. But let’s face it, not every moment of every workout is going to be rainbows and butterflies. Sitting in your splits, doing rope climbs or completing 10 stuck beam routines can be painful, frustrating and exhausting activities.
Yet as coaches if we discount the notion of fun, we are missing out on using one of the more effective tools to keep our athletes involved and engaged. Consider this often-cited fact: The number one reason kids quit sports is because they are no longer fun. And with over 70% of all kids quitting sports by age 13, clearly there are too many kids not having much fun.
Because fun connotates candy store and amusement park style entertainment, it is not consistent with what it takes to develop a young person’s skill or character. Besides coaches are coaches, not babysitters or party clowns.
However it’s important to remember that “fun” is not just light-hearted amusement, but can mean finding an activity meaningful, pleasing or interesting. So when we talk about having “fun” at sports it isn’t just the sugar and spice model of fun, but also the deep purpose and passion model that we need to keep in mind.
So, no, I don’t think that coaches need to be child-entertainers and amusers. They are serious educators and professionals who are tasked with the responsibility of teaching and guiding the young athletes before them using every effective tool possible, and if fun is one of the most effective tools to keep kids engaged in sports (and it is), then fun is part of a great coach’s repertoire. And, from time to time, having some light hearted fun with the kids is okay too!
With that in mind, how can we actually make sports more fun?
Here are a dozen suggestions:
- Asking the kids if they are having fun. Checking in with your athletes by simply asking them, “Are you having fun?” or “What was fun about practice today/this week?” serves two purposes. The first is obvious: it gives you feedback about what they found fun (if anything). The second is that it reminds them (and you) that fun is an essential part of their training!
- Finding out why the kids are participating and what they want out of the experience. Too often, sports leagues are designed around the wants, needs or expectations of the adults. In a 2014 George Washington University study, 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 No. 48, with young girls (our primary customer in gymnastics, ranking winning dead last).
- Acting happy to see the kids and encouraging teammates to bond with each other. Belonging is a critical component to our ability to enjoy ourselves. And when we see ourselves as a part of something larger, we are more connected to your experience.
- Developing kids’ self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, the belief that we are able to perform well or learn the necessary skills to eventually perform well, is key in enjoying what we do. If we feel hopeless at a game, sport or task, we are not likely to consider it to be fun. Coaches can help athletes develop their self-efficacy by ensuring quick success at the beginning of learning and making sure that even as the athlete advances that there is always some success in practice.
- Coaching in a positive manner. A coach that is supportive and encouraging in giving feedback is terrific in helps athletes have more fun and quit at a much lower rate. Encouraging and acknowledging kids effort over their out come is key as is treating all the athletes with respect.
- Making the mundane interesting by using games. Conditioning can be boring and tedious, but when it is gamified it can be a lot of fun. Relay races and contests can create excitement and energy in the gym.
- Using external rewards on occasion. Again, best used for things that are tedious like conditioning or numbers driven like stuck routines. Rewards can be silly, like stickers or a juice box, or the selection of a privilege, like earning an extra trampoline rotation.
- Scaling the difficulty of practice to reach the “Goldilock’s moment.” For something to be enjoyable it cannot be too easy or too hard, but like Goldilock’s bed, it needs to be just right. This means paying attention to each athlete and adjusting the challenge of the workout accordingly.
- Varying workouts. Variety is the spice of life and the antidote to boredom (which is not fun!). Mix your workouts up. Keep it interesting. Nobody wants to do the same exact thing day in and day out.
- Giving kids some choices in what they do. Enjoyment and engagement increases when we have some control over our work. So let your athletes choose the order of their assignments, give them the option between two different conditioning exercises or let them choose the music playing in the gym.
- Playing music. Speaking of music: play it. Music makes people happy. It’s backed by science
- When our athletes are learning and seeing their progress they are much more likely to be enjoying themselves. Sometimes they need help in seeing how much they are learning.
BONUS: Just be silly sometimes. The young athletes you are coaching are kids. Play is the work of kids so don’t forget to include some playtime in your training.
What are your suggestions to make sports fun for your athletes?
Please share your ideas!