What Makes Youth Sport Fun?

I suspect most people choose leisure time activities that are enjoyable to them. This is particularly the case for physical activities, such as exercise and sport, among youth. Anecdotally, I have observed that players on the teams I have coached are more engaged and continue on to the next season when they have fun during the season. This pattern occurs irrespective of how many games we win.

This begs the question, what makes sports fun? This is important considering that most youth (upwards of 70 percent) drop out of sport by the time they reach adolescence.

Recently, Amanda Visek and her colleagues conducted a study to examine this very issue.* To do so, they collected data from parents, coaches, and players. For some of the data collection, they conducted interviews to identify the factors that contributed to sport being fun. They found 81 unique factors emerged. They then asked the study participants to sort these factors into groups. Finally, they asked them to rate the items along various domains, such as importance, how frequently they experienced the factors, the feasibility in implementing, and so on. 

They found that the 81 factors contributing to fun could be aggregated into 11 larger groupings. These included: 

  1. positive team dynamics
  2. trying hard
  3. positive coaching
  4. learning and improving
  5. game time support
  6. games
  7. practices
  8. team friendships
  9. mental bonuses
  10. team rituals
  11. swag

Of these, positive team dynamics, trying hard, and positive coaching were the three factors that emerged as most important. Thus, when the team functions well, when players feel they try hard and can perform their best, and when they have coaches who are supportive and positive, they are more likely to have fun in the sport. 

It is important to identify what factors contribute to fun, and equally important (at least to me) is considering what does not. Things such as winning, receiving swag, or engaging in team rituals are relatively unimportant to the children participating in sports. I suspect they have much higher value to the parents than to the players themselves. 

Finally, the authors' findings have practical implications. Coaches, parents, and sport managers can use these results to make sport more appealing to all. The authors note: "the fun-determinants can be conveniently converted to practice plans for coaches, set a standard for parent education and behavior at youth sport events, inform coaching education and certificate programs, as well as serve as the basis for fostering positive, collaborative dynamics among teammates."

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* Visek, A. J., Achrati, S., M. Mannix, H. M., McDonnell, K., & Harris, B. S., & DiPietro, L. (2015). The fun integration theory: Toward sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 12, 424-433.