The Fun and Games of Youth Sports

Last month, I wrote a post titled, “Should Youth Basketball Practices Be Fun?” On another site, a high school coach criticized the idea of fun, suggesting that fun was nice, but he wanted his players to improve and excel, and the two were mutually exclusive: one can either have fun or one can excel.

This seems to be the general consensus. Competitive coaches look at fun as a bad word, and often appear to go out of their way to make the game not fun.

Anson Dorrance, the Head Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of North Carolina and winner of 18 NCAA Championships and 94% of his games, does not view fun as a bad word.

“Our underlying theme has always got to be that there are a billion people in China who don’t even know we’re playing soccer today, so let’s relax and enjoy ourselves because this isn’t the end of the world.”

Is his program less successful because he is not ultra-serious?

Former assistant coach Bill Steffen says, “When people ask me, ‘What do you remember most about working at UNC?’ The first word that comes to my mind isn’t winning or training or tradition, it is fun.”

Why do coaches think that always being a hard-ass is the best way to inspire players to perform their best? Why can’t the game be fun?

Last week, I attended a college game with a couple coaches who I helped when I coached during college. We talked about the first time we went to an AAU National Championship Tournament and the rules that the coaches imposed on the players, especially no swimming. Coaches and parents were concerned about conserving energy for the next day’s game. The girls were 10-years-old.

The second time that the coach went to Nationals, he eased up on the rules. He also finished second in the nation. Why not allow players to swim after a game? The girls wanted to socialize and have fun. Isn’t that why parents sign up their kids for sports in the first place?

Adds [UNC athletic department physician Bill] Prentice: “I’ve been around athletics all my life, and I have never seen any other situation like this. I used to sit there and think, “How [in the world] do these guys get away with this?’ Then one day you realize that maybe everybody else is doing it wrong. A lot of the other coaches have forgotten that it’s supposed to be fun. Maybe Anson and Dino have figured out that one of the keys to being successful is to treat the sport the way it was intended to be played. It is just a … game.”

1 thought on “The Fun and Games of Youth Sports

  • “Anyone who knows how to get deeply lost in the flow of activity, rythym or movement – whether that be in dance, music, football – knows that the word Fun does not do the experience justice at all: Flow is a different ball park to Fun. Children may not have the eloquence to describe such a state in the way the composer does, but I believe that children are capable of reaching a similar kind of Flow state through (the right kind of) football.

    We are short-changing our kids if we aim for Fun and nothing more. Finding a pathway to Flow can be life-changing. For the lucky few who have the kind of football opportunities and environments where they can get lost in the hazy timeless present of a game of football, it can be thrilling beyond satisfaction. Flow can provide for some children the only entry point to a world of expression, spontaneity and one-ness in an otherwise stuffy (but fun!) classroom existence.”

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