There’s been a coaching riddle that has perplexed me since 2002. The concept of “fun” in sports. It started way back when a very talented group of players were underachieving and had fallen into poor practice habits. After a players-only meeting to figure out their ideas to achieve more from practice in order to perform better in games, one of the three things listed was they weren’t having “fun” at practice. More recently, I’ve heard many a player who chose not to go out for a particular sport they’ve participated in previously, give their reasoning as “it’s not fun.”
Over the years, I’ve gone from utter disbelief (What do you want, a cake and a friggin’ party?”) to old man-get-off-my-lawn (It’s this stupid video game generation?”) to finally over the last few years wanting to study and figure out what “fun” actually means to a youth athlete.
What struck me earlier this year was in order to put my thumb on the problem of fun, I needed to quit looking at the issue from the perspective of a middle-aged, white guy and try to turn back the mental clock to think like a teenage boy. It was scary at times and it was not always family-friendly content, but what I discovered was very telling. I discovered from my experiences as a teenage athlete to my experiences as a sports coach to my ability to empathize with today’s young athletes, a definition of what they mean when they say, “it’s not fun.”
Fun means satisfying.
Fun doesn’t mean clowning around all the time or having no desire to compete like I used to think. Fun means they desire a satisfying participation experience that makes it worth the time they invest when there are a thousand other things they could be doing instead. Fun means a satisfying environment where they feel safe, valued, and among leaders who, first and foremost, want to make them better humans through athletics.
Sure, nobody likes getting their ass handed to them in a sporting event but I don’t think winning and losing is anything but a small fraction of this new definition of fun. Then again, the environment of competing—the environment of doing things the right way and getting better every day—often depends on having that satisfying environment directed toward daily physical, mental, and emotional improvement.
As we end the fall sports season and transition to the winter sports with an eye toward spring and beyond, coaches (and parents) take a moment to honestly evaluate your program, your young student-athletes, and, in particular, get a gauge on how fun/satisfying their experience is or has been. Throw your ego aside and make the necessary changes. Study other programs.
Develop a fun/satisfying program. Develop an environment to which young athletes choose to be there rather than doing any of those thousands of other things they could be doing. Develop an environment that respects their decision not to participate but, time and place accordingly, welcome them back into the fold without ramification if they’ve found out they made the wrong initial decision.
A coaching warning, though. Providing this type of environment takes work and effort every single day. It takes connecting with the athletes on more than just a sports performance level. It requires an energy level above and beyond the call of duty. You check your adult problems and adult ego/arrogance at the door when you walk into the locker room. You make a difference one kid, one day, one drill, one game, one play, and one season at a time through consistency and direction. Competing satisfies an inherent human trait. Tap into it with everything you do as a coach.
Provide a satisfying experience and young athletes will follow you to the ends of the earth. And it will be fun.
Finally, as so eloquently stated in Field of Dreams,
“If you build it, they will come.”