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Fun Is Still Number One Reason Kids Play Sports

Despite emphasis on winning, most kids just wanna have fun

Young soccer player having funYouth sports may have become more and more about competition and winning, but kids are, in a word, still kids: the number one reason kids play sports is still to have fun, and, even at the high school level, most would still rather get playing time on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winner.

In an oft-cited 1989 study, the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University asked 28,000 junior high and high school students to list their top eleven reasons for participating in sports. 

At the top of the list for both boys and girls was "to have fun," followed by "do something I'm good at" and "to improve my skills."

Girls ranked winning as the least important reason; boys rated winning eighth.

Fun, fun, fun

Twenty-plus years later, has the hyper-competitive nature of youth sports changed the attitudes of kids?  Do they play sports more to win now than ever (as a lot of adults might think) or is fun still number one?

Fun is still tops, according to a number of recent surveys.  First up, a report in The New York Times1 on the results of a non-scientific poll of 725 fourth- to eighth grade football and basketball players in Darien, Connecticut.

The athletes, members of the local junior football and Y.M.C.A. basketball leagues, took the same single-page Michigan State survey listing 11 reasons for playing sports.  They then assigned points to each based on their relative importance adding up to 100. 

Having fun topped the list for both football and basketball players, boys and girls, and regardless of grade.  Both boys (95%) and girls (98%) listed fun as a reason for playing, nearly twice the percentage as listed winning. 

Prefer to play, even if team loses

Ask kids about what they want to get out of sports, and the vast majority still say competitive games in which everyone plays and has fun.Given a choice between fun and winning, most still say having fun. Theywould rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team.

Believe it or not, this attitude persists through high school, where you would think that kids would begin to value winning over playing.

In its most recent sportsmanship study,2 the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that the overwhelming majority of high school athletes value winning but would much rather play for a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team and believe winning is not essential for the enjoyment of the sport. 

Asked whether they would rather sit on the bench for a winning team than play on a team with a losing record, 27% of boys and 23% of girls strongly agreed with the statement while three-quarters of both boys (74%) and girls (76%) disagreed. Seven out of ten and almost nine out of ten girls agreed with the statement, "I want to win, but winning is not essential for me to enjoy my sports experience."

Fun: An Essential Ingredient 

It is also a myth that fun has to be sacrificed for a child to succeed at sports. Indeed, studies have consistently found that the only way an athlete will continue to play sports - regardless of level of ability - is if he or she is having fun.

Athletes have to practice hard to reach an elite level. If it is all work and no play, they simply won't keep playing. Success is determined by the player's own desire to succeed, which comes from a love of the sport.3

So it should come as no surprise that, according to a Harris Interactive poll of eight- to eighteen-year-olds, the number reason kids quit sports, cited by four in ten, was they were no longer having fun. They survey found that the decision to quit hadless to do with that boy's or girl's own skills - or lack of skills - than with pressure from adults acting as if each game was the seventh gameof the World Series, and the child's need to preserve a positive self-image.

Judging from the number of e-mails I get from parents who are reluctant to let their athletically gifted children quit sports because it isn't fun anymore, a lot of parents have a difficult time with the concept.

1. Hyman, M. "A Survey of Youth Sports Finds Winning Isn't the Only Thing." New York Times (January 31, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/sports/31youth.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Dari... (accessed August 6. 2010).

2. Josephson Institute of Ethics. “What Are Your Children Learning? The Impact of High School Sports on the Values and Ethics of High School Athletes" (February 16, 2007) http://josephsoninstitute.org/pdf/sports_survey_report_022107.pdf (accessed August 6, 2010)

3. Gould, D. & Carson, S. "Fun and Games? Myths Surrounding the Role of Youth Sports in Developing Olympic Champions." Youth Studies Australia 23, no.1 (2004): 27-34.

Created August 6, 2010


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