Make sports fun and kids won’t quit

By Nancy Justis, correspondent

Much has been researched and written about why kids quit sports.

It has been shown may times, the biggest reason kids quit is because they aren’t having fun.

There are many reasons, including abusive coaches, overbearing parents and too much emphasis placed on winning.

It also been researched and written youth sports are important for more than the medals and ribbons won. Youth competitive sports teach self-discipline, sportsmanship, self-confidence and build lifelong relationships. Young athletes graduate at higher rates than those who don’t participate. Companies hire former athletes because of the lessons learned while competing.

But only if youth sports is done right.

Too many coaches and parents don’t understand youth sports can be fun — in fact it’s imperative it be fun — and competitive. Otherwise, why would elite athletes spend years and years honing their craft? It’s not for fame and fortune.

Former Major League Baseball player Jack Perconte, author of three books about young athletes and coaching, lists the following reasons why kids are not having fun.

l Placing unreachable or impractical goals on kids, which cause players to feel like failures when they do not reach those goals.

l Adults belittling, ignoring or nagging players. Any initial benefits from these methods will end quickly as athletes grow weary of those tactics.

l Having dull and unchallenging practices. You need to engage players, especially during practice time. Making it more fun than staying home and playing video games is the coaching challenge.

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l No accomplishment or advancement. When kids feel like they are disappointing themselves or others, the fun erodes quickly. The wrong coaching definition of success can lead kids to believing they are losers.

l Too much emphasis on achievement and winning, instead of on the process and improvement. You must acknowledge players when they try, improve and are coachable more than when they win.

l When failure of coaches to communicate adequately in the important areas of skill development, player and parent behavior and proper sportsmanship, things erode. Kids are on to things more than people think.

John O’Sullivan of “Changing The Game” notes “fun is NOT a 4-letter word.” He said kids need three things to become “high performers: autonomy, intrinsic motivation and enjoyment.

“The enjoyment part is so often lost in the shuffle of private coaching, year-round commitments, and early specialization.”

He goes on to note “unless your child’s desire to play and enjoyment of play matches the effort needed to succeed, he or she will never make the commitment necessary to get to the next level.”

Forcing a child to play will just waste your time and money, the coaches’ time and will make the child miserable.

When I was a young athlete, my parents never pushed me into competitive sports. I asked if I could be a competitive swimmer and I stuck it out for 10 years. I never would have lasted that long if I wasn’t enjoying the experience. The only thing my father said was, “If you are going to do it, you are going to do it right.” That meant putting the time and effort into the sport as expected by the coaches, my parents and myself.

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Fun in sports does not compute to goofing off, ignoring the coaches’ teachings and not taking it seriously. Sullivan said fun also can be “working hard. It is being challenged and competing. It is learning a new skill, being with friends, getting compliments from coaches and a coach who respects them. (It means) learning from mistakes, working together as a team, applying a skill you learned in practice or in a game … and winning … winning is part of the fun … It is not the most important factor, however.”

O’Sullivan notes the way to make sports both fun and competitive include the following:

l Play games in training. At a minimum, 60-70 percent of training should be game-based. Play, and players will compete.

l Focus on values such as fearlessness and accountability. If athletes are not afraid to make mistakes and are willing to be held accountable when they do not bring the right effort and focus, they will compete.

l Stop yelling at players for technical errors. Nothing stops a player competing faster than getting yelled at for every mistake. If they compete with 100 percent focus and effort and still make a mistake, they are still learning.

l Give them ownership. Whether it is choosing the game, deciding on the practice topic, etc., when kids are given ownership, their enjoyment will increase and with it that competitive fire.

O’Sullivan’s final words of wisdom: “Sport isn’t work.”

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at

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