Keeping the Fun in Children’s Sports

“The evidence shows that what makes sports really fun for kids is trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, experiencing positive coaching,” a doctor of sports medicine said.

Comments: 40

  1. As a psychologist I agree that sports, formal and informal, offer many benefits for children (and adults), one of which is learning the concept of good sportsmanship. However, I was greatly disappointed that the US women’s soccer team, during its drubbing of the Thai team in the first round, displayed such poor sportsmanship. Acting out on the field is banned in American football; why should it be accepted in soccer?

  2. @Mon Ray Just asking, (not challenging), what looked like poor sportsmanship to you?

  3. @t glover - I can't speak for Mon Ray, but in my opinion, gloating and showboating are unsavory. Didn't the US win 13-0? Didn't it become quickly obvious that the contest was lopsided? I am not saying the US should have given Thailand a goal or NOT scored 13 goals, but it seems foolish and juvenile to go all rah rah after the third or fourth goal when it was painfully clear the game was going to be a rout. To be clear, I don't like any showy behavior in any sports. It should be satisfying enough to know one is the best and acknowledge the fans' support without pumping fists and jumping around and such.

  4. @t glover Were you not watching? Did you not see the many negative articles and comments about the US women’s team in the NYT and elsewhere? Specifically, I objected to the extreme and incessant celebrating and gloating after each goal, long after it had been established that this was in fact a terrible mis-match. Handling both victory and defeat with grace is a virtue, which was certainly not displayed by the US women’s soccer team in their match with Thailand.

  5. 2 important points. first, the more adults involved in a game, the more time children spend listening and looking rather than moving. Kids need to be outside (indoor soccer is not outside) and they need to be free to organize and play games as best as they can. Second, children do not need to feel that their athletic lives are the central theme to family life. Parents don't need to be at every game, involved in every moment for children to know that they care and support them ( much of that is to posture to others what a good parent you are). if they won't play without you there, they really don't want to play with you there.

  6. @alan I can't count how many times I've seen kids make a mistake on the field and look at their parent to see if they noticed/reacted or when they make a positive play they look at their parents for approval - this is kids at 14 to 17 years of age. Many of them don't seem to want to be there and are playing out their parents' dreams...

  7. "Parents can play an important role here, looking at their children to see what they are developmentally ready to do, and not pushing them too early into situations that will be frustrating." I understand this to mean parents needs to recognize that their child isn't ready to play point guard or shoot on his basketball team, or be the running back on his football team or the infielder on his baseball team. And doing so in games doesn't get them better.

  8. It seems like there is a hyper-focus on organized sports, especially with kids. I find it has become more about parents and their egos than having fun. When was the last time the kids in the neighborhood did a pick-up game of baseball, kickball, tag ect? It seems like that is something of the past, which is a shame because not only does it allow kids to have fun, but the social interactions without adult intervention is what was fun about growing up.

  9. @MH Do kids play pick-up games anymore? I remember being one of the skinny uncoordinated kids playing pond hockey. The big guys never bullied us or made us feel bad. We used to park one of the young kids down by the goal and pass it down to him from time to time so he could score on an empty net (actually a 12-inch space between two bricks. It was healthy and fun and everything youth sports aren't. Same deal with baseball. I bet I played 1,000 innings of pick-up ball for every inning of standing out in the outfield in Little League. What we had was so much better - we didn't need coaches and we each got about 50 turns at bat in an afternoon. Youth sports is a sick industry for parents.

  10. @MH Parents seem so frightened that their kids have any unscheduled time. Also, they seem terrified that their kids will be snatched by a stranger or assaulted if they go anywhere on their own. We spent our summers playing in creeks, woods, fields... our kids who are in late university now, spent a lot of time with others in our neighbourhood playing, but we live in a townhome with lots of other kids around, others we know living in houses don't seem to have many kids to play with so they just stay in each others' homes playing video games.

  11. For a time in my preteens and early teen years I played organized softball.I was also ran track, swam, took piano lessons, and was an avid Girl Scout. I had plenty of opportunities for free play and hanging out with my friends...tromping in the woods, building tree forts, playing kickball in the street, etc. I enjoyed it all. One year I ended up on a softball team whose coach was all about winning. ( until then I had been on laid back, supportive teams) One day I was a bit late to practice because of a piano lesson and he berated me and said I needed to quit everything else and devote myself to softball only. The next day at practice I turned in my softball uniform and never looked back.

  12. I noticed that the study doesn’t look at regular physical education classes in schools. My experience, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, in a supposedly progressive school district, was that P.E. also featured bullying by kids and verbal abuse by coaches. As a small, uncoordinated kid, every day in P.E. was misery. There was precious little E. We played baseball, basketball, and touch football in season, with a little bit of calisthenics, (never stretching), some track, and one week of marching drills. It was just assumed you knew how to play, and most of class time was just that: playing the game. Doing laps was a punishment, not a cardio routine. Not once did a P.E. teacher say to me, “I see you’re struggling. How can I help you?” One memorable 6th grade coach isolated all the uncoordinated kids (the “spazzes”) in one squad and encouraged the other kids to make fun of them. The result: I hate sports to this day. I had to find my own way to my current regimen of exercise and physical fitness, none of which involves team sports. I don’t know what goes on today in Phys Ed., but I hope it includes stretching, cardio, weight or resistance training, etc. You know, actual skills and practices for lifelong health.

  13. @Daniel Pressman - I agree! PE is the only subject in school where the adult teacher focuses exclusively on the gifted kids. Those who are physically smaller, later to develop skills or simply discouraged are ignored or shamed. We wouldn’t accept that in academic classes. Why is it ok in PE?

  14. @Daniel Pressman Physical education growing up in the 60's and 70's in Upstate New York, was very like your experience. Bulling, abusive punishment, humiliation. You really learn to hate team sports, when you were always one of the last two kids picked for the team. Sure hope they changed that stupid methods of determining teams. Phys Ed at my high school was graded on ability, not effort, so in addition to years of miserable experiences, it dragged my high school average down enough to miss the top ten of the class honor, by one student.

  15. @Pat Having attended a very competitive public high school where all the subjects had 4-5 levels I was always angry that gym was not also tracked by ability. Academically I was in the highest levels in every subject, but in gym I belonged in probably the lowest. Had we been tracked by ability, those of us with less might have learned more and enjoyed gym class more. Instead we were always the very last picked for teams and got low grades which were a drag on our GPAs.

  16. I found as a child that sports were only fun if there were no adults around.

  17. For a child who is elementary school-age or younger, what do grownups know about having fun? Perhaps until junior high age, the more that adults become involved in kids’ play, the less valuable play is for the kids.

  18. Coaching abuse? Let's start with parental abuse of player, coach, and officials. I coached lacrosse for 15 years and officiated for 10. The parental horror stories are out there. Unfortunately, the common response from rec. councils, school systems, and officials organizations is "...it comes with the territory"; i.e., if you don't like it you can leave. Just once I would like to see an official file suit against a school district for the inability or unwillingness of the school system's site coordinator to control the crowd. Typically, they go deaf and blind, but collect their extra paycheck.

  19. @Mike As a former youth coach and official, I agree. I found that when my kids began officiating, they were trained to warn the coach(es) once about any yelling / abuse from the bench or sidelines; the second time, they were instructed to abandon the game and file an official report. It helped, especially when the standings would be affected.

  20. Youth sport experts in sociology and philosophy and psychology have demonstrated through research for decades that FUN is the primary reason kids play. Why is it medical doctors who get the press coverage? There’s nothing new year. Organized sports, in almost all cases decreases fun. The youth sport system in Norway is universal in celebrating fun, mastery, developing friendships ... in fact, standings aren’t even ALLOWED to be kept until kids are 12 years old. Participation level is extraordinarily high in Norway. And in the US, kids drop out.

  21. @Stephen Mosher I was very very interested to read about Norway's youth sports culture last spring. I went to work and tried to describe it to several co-workers who are intense sports parents. They looked at me as if I had just landed from Mars and was speaking without benefit of a universal translator.

  22. Fun is paramount. But that also means letting your kid play every day if they want. The essential amount of rest and recovery time is highly variable and dependent on the activities preceding the rest. I don’t think forcing cross-training on kids is necessarily a good idea. We see plenty of kids in second and third sports who should not be out there in organized play and do not really want to be out there. If somebody wants to play golf or basketball every day, by all means let them have their fun and don’t shove the latest research down their throat.

  23. I exit articles when I read "necessarily," either in the copy or a quote. It warns: herd mentality.

  24. This article acts as though coaches for youth sports are well paid professionals. Most of the time coaches are volunteer parents doing the best they can. Most of the time the parent can choose to tolerate whatever conditions the coach offers or choose not to participate at all. The football coaches are negative, push my son through injury, and offer little in terms of coaching. If you don’t like it, you can quit the sport. Nobody has the power to negotiate with the football coach. There is no alternative, so now what? The girls on the softball team are bullying and exclusionary, and my daughter is having a terrible time socially. She loves the sport and doesn’t want to quit. The coach is volunteering after her day job and is not trained in peer intervention. Now what? (Representative examples of actual incidents.) This article seems to put all the pressure and blame on the parent to make the proper choices. What about the complete lack of choices? Nutrition in schools is garbage, schools are under-funded and under-staffed, coaches are untrained and often unpaid......but parents, make good choices. How about our state and federal legislators make some good choices and start fully funding public schools? How about for every law and requirement passed by legislators - for testing, standards, etc. - legislators also allocate funding? How about we get a Secretary of Education who has some ideas for how to make progress on these pressing issues?

  25. The co-ed youth basketball league in which I coach evaluates the skills of each player prior to the start of the season. Teams are formed by a commissioner, with the goal being competitive balance. Practices run for an hour on Saturdays and games run for an hour on Sundays. Substitutions are made such that all players get equal playing time. Practices emphasize scrimmaging, with occasional times-out for coaching pointers. The games are generally close and spirited. The kids have fun, get plenty of exercise and spend very little time standing around. If your town doesn't have a league with that format, you should form one. (I assume it would work for any sport that you choose).

  26. Hello All: The biggest lie about sports is that they teaches sportsmanship. Sports and coaches and leagues do not teach sportsmanship, parents do, and they are competing for their own child’s attention with coaches and many of the other kids’ parents who, more often than not, display poor sportsmanship and even encourage poor sportsmanship. I have never seen a sports program that devotes any time at all to sportsmanship other than the soulless “Good game” hand slap line at the end of a contest. The problem with most sports programs is they are usually run by former athletes. Cheers, Jeff Pucillo

  27. I'm a coach. Good sportsmanship, without exception, is my bottom-line demand from my players. I don't lose sleep if they NEVER get good or win, but the fastest way out is marked "bad loser, bad winner, cheat." I'll quit coaching before I back down from that. If someone is going to help turn kids into adults you wouldn't want your kid to grow up to marry or work with, it's not going to be me.

  28. Hello Christopher: Right on. Unfortunately coaches like you are so few and far between that you are the exception that proves the rule. What I did not mention in my original post is that I also coached my daughter’s rec league hoops team. I knew nothing about coaching but I used to play rec ball and I have watched countless hours of the pros. Like you I made the decision to focus on the experience and personal improvement rather than wins and championships. Every parent came to me throughout the season and said their daughter was having the best sports experience of their lives. I was not doing anything magical or brilliant; my assistants and I created a true team culture that honored the other team as much as our own. Anyone can do it. Sadly, few do. Cheers, Jeff Pucillo

  29. @Jeff Pucillo: Well, do you want an artist to run a sports program or a pitcher to run an art program--go figure. I have had tons of coaches, of course all were former athletes and all got it across to be good sports. The athlete-nonathlete sports director idea holds very little water here for many reasons. I agree that just playing sports does not necessarily teach sportsmanship, but would place most of the blame on helicotpering parents who try to live their lives through their kids' sports.

  30. I played two sports from the age of 7 through high school. I got so much out of those sports as I grew up. I very much want my young kids to have those experiences too, when they are old enough, but I'm disheartened by how intense so quickly the sports get. For me, it wasn't until middle school that sports were every day for the season (except for Sunday), and even then we had large periods of off-season to do something else or just rest. Now, elementary-age kids are expected to practice and play games multiple days a week, sometimes year-round. By middle school, if you're not on a traveling team in the off-seasons, you're unlikely to make even the JV team at school. It makes me so sad b/c I know many kids that are talented but burn out and quit by late high school. And for kids that want to be somewhat competitive but also have time for other interests, most of the team sports aren't really an option for them by the tween years.

  31. Many years ago, my son joined an AAU swim team the first day of First Grade. His younger sister joined the same team her first day of Kindergarten. During the previous summer, my son had gone through ever level of the local town swim classes - he was too young for Life Saving and the coach suggested I enroll him in a swim team. It was a joy to see this child excel at ANY sport. He was all arms, legs, hands and feet. These were an advantage in the water; on dry land, they were potentially lethal. He swam (very well!) through high school and played varsity water polo in college. His son now also plays water polo and his daughter is a swimmer. My daughter swam until she aged up and no longer was winning. For her, it was ALL about the winning and the ribbons and trophies. I had nothing to do with this - I just drove the car to practice and meets and bought the goggles and Speedo's. She played sports through high school and rowed in college for a year. Her elder son is on the squash team at his ivy. Younger son is not at all interested in sports, other than sailing in the summer. All always had lots of time to try other sports and to just "play". Until my children were 9 and 11, we lived in a neighborhood where children played with one another daily - just rand the doorbell. A competitive child will always be that way - it's how that child is hardwired. One cannot force this or hold it back.

  32. This article seems to discuss the ideal situation: sports programs SHOULD do this...parents SHOULD do this. . . All my children took part in sports from a young age, and enjoyed both their sports and a high degree of success and recognition. They played because they enjoyed the games. Participation was ENTIRELY their choice and we supported them as best we could. All chose to take part until graduation from high school and have continued in college. What they did NOT enjoy was the obvious internal team politics that occurred each year: certain players given more field time b/c their parent was the largest fundraiser - parents screaming and cursing both from the stands - Parents demanding a "return on their investment" (private coaching lesson) in playing time to show off for "recruiters" My kids told me "Mom, the cost of those lessons would just about equal any athletic scholarship so and so MIGHT get" Sadly much of youth sports is centered around parental wishes and dreams, and very little to do with building confidence, character or skill.

  33. Olivia Westphal Regina High School Keeping the Fun in Children’s Sports The article that interested me the most in the Times this week is “Keeping the Fun in Children’s Sports.” This article interested me because I always assumed Children’s sports were fun. The article states that “ The evidence shows that what makes sports really fun for kids is trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, experiencing positive coaching.” This is what makes sports fun as kids get older as well. Yes, losing may not be fun, but it prepares the kids for that feeling growing up. It was also stated that the sports a child plays can have an effect on their development. An example used is that if a preadolescent child only plays soccer, their bodies aren’t getting the movement they need. Dr. Michele LaBotz states that kids not only should be playing sports, but they should also take part in free play. She says they should have a variety of activities, not just one sport. It’s important to balance the different types of sports, such as running with a sport that uses your upper body. Coaching also plays a big role in children’s sports. If a coach is rude, or even abusing the team, the kids won’t have fun. That is why it is important to have a coach that truly cares about the kids. When you sign your children up for sports, make sure to remember how they are being affected by the choices you make.

  34. Many coaches and parents of younger kids playing on organized sports teams are hypercritical and have no conception that they should be teaching such kids the sport through enjoyable experiences that keep them engaged and having fun. Instead, the coaches are screaming at the kids and demanding perfection, and the parents are inappropriately coaching from the sidelines and criticizing their kids -- and even their kids' teammates -- for all to hear. Guess what -- it really doesn't matter if 8-year-old Bobby or Suzie's team wins that game and even if it did, your approach is not the most effective way to get that result. Let the kids play the game. Adults, be positive or keep your mouths shut.

  35. @Hools well stated. I couldn't agree more.

  36. @MH, Beautiful comment! Growing up in the 50s and 60s we played sandlot baseball, football, and basketball with a loose group of 20-30 neighborhood kids. The amount of time playing was, as you say, so much greater than little league and school sports. There were no adults around ( except maybe a parent looking out the kitchen window occasionally) and so we learned the sport and learned to negotiate and solve many of our little disagreements. We were far from perfect, but the experience was better than what my children usually experienced as they grew up in the structured parent/coach controlled environment described in this article. I grew to love the camaraderie of sports so much that I played all three (and added soccer in my 50s), mostly at the pickup or rec league level, until age finally caught up with me. Now I jog alone, but I still miss those team sports.

  37. So much thought/worry put into this. I have 2 young kids and I hope that, like me, they have the opportunity to roam freely in the neighborhood to partake in whatever games they choose (for me it was wiffleball, bicycling and the monkeybars) and whatever sports at school they like. I figured out early on I wasn’t a great basketball or soccer player, but I had to finish the season before I could give it up. That was a good takeaway and I’m glad my parents didn’t revolve their lives around my sports. They were concerned with my character, not my sports resume.

  38. This article interested me because I have been playing sports ever since I was in first grade and I am starting to realize the differences of it then and now. I have played a bunch of different sports weather it was on a team or just outside in my backyard. Now that I’m in high school the meaning behind playing a sport has completely changed from when I was seven. I only play one sport now and there is a lot of pressure and stress that comes with it. Sometimes it’s not all about having fun but focusing on winning or making the playoffs. I think coaches and players lose sight of what's really important and get caught up in winning when were really supposed to focus on having fun too. Some players feel like playing a high school sport is like a job and hate doing it, not because they don’t like the sport anymore but because it's not just about having fun anymore. I strongly suggest we do what we can to keep the fun in children's sports because it can completely change when they get older. It’s important for kids to have fun while playing a sport because there are a lot of positive outcomes like building confidence in themselves. I think parents and coaches have a very strong influence on a players attitude and how they develop things like sportsmanship and cooperativeness. Playing a sport when your younger also helps you to make a bunch of friends, socialize and stay active.

  39. What interested me the most in this article is that how younger kids want to get outside and play more than older kids do. Younger kids want to play more sports so that they can keep themselves busy. Children should balance a running sport like soccer with a sport that uses more upper body motion like baseball or swimming or tennis, or with an activity that requires more motor control like martial arts or gymnastics or dance. Parents can play an important role here, looking at their children to see what they are developmentally ready to do, and not pushing them too early into situations that will be frustrating. She talks about the importance of appropriate rest, about the role that getting enough sleep plays in injury prevention, about the right amount of the right kinds of nutrition, “getting what you need from foods rather than tapping into supplements." The most prevalent forms of abuse on sports teams are between teammates, hazing, bullying. The parent plays an absolutely essential role in supporting the child’s progress, skills, development, enjoyment. Parents should also be keeping an eye on other aspects of children’s lives, making sure they’re getting enough sleep, getting the right nutrition. Sometimes adults and schedules and pressure can take the fun away from kids who originally just wanted to go out and play. Sometimes after everyone is done with their sport that they are playing they are usually tired and sweaty. They get to enjoy the fun in their sport.

  40. I was mostly interested in the article because I had noticed a very recent and rapid rise in parent involvement among youth activities, and I was interested to see whether or not the article showed concern for how much pressure adults put on youth sports. I started to notice this issue when I first read about multiple fights in youth sports, but I just assumed that it would be between the kids, but when it became clear the outbreak of violence was stemming from the crowd it confused me how hypercritical adults could be over small faults like missed calls or wrong calls. I feel that if adults become too involved in their children’s activities then it will take out all of the joy the child has of their youth, creating bad memories for them. I believe I became concerned with this topic because I’ve seen from personal experience how children take after their parents habits, and that they will most likely turn out the same way. If this is to continue then some youth sports might stop their operations for the safety of the kids and other innocent bystanders. For many cases the game becomes a battle for the adults rather than a fun experience you should expect.