Can sports be fun and serious simultaneously?

Fun and play are contentious topics in sports, as serious coaches, especially at younger age groups, believe that fun and seriousness are diametrically opposed. When forced to choose between two opposites, traditional coaches choose seriousness because sports are supposed to be serious, competitive endeavors. What? Sports are games. They are play. Why can’t fun and play be part of the sports experience, especially with young players?

In a column about Leicester City FC, currently the first place team in the Barclay’s Premiere League, Ed Smith wrote, “If you’re really serious about winning, I eventually realised, you should adopt an equally serious commitment to play.”

Similarly, in an article about Stephen Curry’s dominance, Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote:

Somehow, it all fits the Curry competitive aesthetic. Striving for victory is enjoyable, taunting is meant to be friendly. The cliché of prime Brett Favre, “Just having fun out there,” applies to basketball’s MVP. It has been a contagious brand of dominance, especially resonant with younger fans.

At the highest levels of soccer and basketball in the world, play and fun go hand and hand with competitiveness and winning, but in youth and high school sports, it seems as though fun is anathema to coaches. Why?

I once wrote on a coach’s message forum that we should develop and coach players as though we were preparing them to play pickup games at the park. I was ridiculed by other more serious, traditional coaches who lambasted this statement because of their biases of what pickup basketball means. To them, pickup basketball meant a lack of discipline and hard work and proper fundamentals, the things that traditional coaches value over everything else. However, how does playing on asphalt for 2-3 hours in a row in 100-degree temperatures not embody hard work and discipline? Anyone can spend their summers in an air conditioned gym shooting uncontested jump shots; is that really discipline and hard work? My argument was that players who succeed in pickup games with unfamiliar teammates and opponents are players who have a good basketball understanding and good all-around skills. When I play pickup games at six-feet tall there are times that I am the tallest player on my team and must defend post players, and times when I am one of the shorter players or acknowledged as the best ball handler or passer and play as a point guard. I have to have adaptable skills. I have to be able to play with players who do not space the floor as I would like or who cut when I am driving. I have to run a pick-and-roll as a ball handler and a screener. To me, this adaptability is something that we strive to develop in all young players. We should want all young players to have the skills and understanding to be a ball handler, a post player, or a spot-up shooter. I don’t see how this is a ridiculous statement. Furthermore, the players who continue to play pickup games in hot weather and after their competitive careers are finished are the ones who truly love to play the game. Why do we want to develop players who quit basketball the day that their competitive careers are finished?

Play and fun are not the opposite of serious and competitive. Players tend to find competitive situations to be fun, and, to me, boring is the opposite of fun. Why should we strive to run boring practices just to reduce the players’ fun? That seems like the exact opposite goal of coaching.

As Smith wrote:

“The best coach I played under, the former Australian Test cricketer John Inverarity, spent much of his time trying to loosen the environment at practice, to make it lighter and more playful; indeed, that was his way of making practice more demanding…..Inverarity realised that inspiring curiosity among players leads naturally to discipline and dedication. Only it doesn’t feel like discipline or hard work; it feels like fun. Serious fun, as Charles Eames would have said. We never work harder than when we are playing.”

Unfortunately, coaches tend to favor the military approach to discipline. It is my way or the highway. Players show discipline by following directions and tucking in their shirts and not smiling or appearing to have fun on the basketball court. But, playing a sport is not the military. You sign up for sports to have fun; you join the military to protect your country and understand that the price that you pay could be your life. Losing a game is not life or death regardless of the analogies that are used in sports commentaries.

“Practice is not just “drill” – boring steps in a slow grind towards a prearranged destination – it is also about reshaping how players see themselves and what they are capable of. The deft coach uses practice like designers use prototypes, to experiment and tinker. The two central questions for any player are: “How do I play when I’m playing at my best?” and “How can I get there more often?” Playful practice can bring those questions within reach, sometimes without requiring them to be explicitly articulated” (Smith, 2016).

I played my best during camps or summer leagues when coaches were more hands-off. During competitive seasons, I tried so hard to follow the coach’s directions that I never really played my game. I was one of the best shooters on every team that I played on starting in 5th grade, but I rarely shot the ball because a point guard was supposed to pass the ball. In summer leagues or camps, a few times I had coaches who encouraged me to shoot and told me that passing too much was a mistake. I started to pull up for 3s on fast breaks, shots that would get me benched with my school teams. I drove and finished because I was adept with my right and left hands. When allowed to play rather than trying so hard to please my coach and do everything perfectly, I had more fun, and I played better.

Fun often is used as a negative characterization within sports, but what do we mean by fun in youth sports? In a qualitative study of youth athletes, Visek and colleagues (2015) established the Fun Integration Theory, which suggested that youth athletes feel that a positive team environment, trying hard, and positive coaching create a fun experience. When we think of fun as a positive environment, positive coaching, and trying hard, even a traditional coach might have to concede that fun is not a negative in youth sports. These aspects might be part of their definition of serious and competitive, especially as it relates directly to the players (trying hard).

Youth sports should be fun and playful. It works for the best teams and players in the world. Why should we be opposed to it with younger athletes?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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