There is a lot of joy to be found in sport. It might be watching in slow motion amazement as one of your teammates pulls off a diving catch or saves a sure goal. It might be the satisfaction that comes when a play you have rehearsed every week at freezing cold training sessions finally comes off in a match.
It might be hanging out with your teammates afterwards and talking about the game. Or, like Phoebe in Friends, it might just be the feeling of running so fast your limbs feel like they are going to fall off. In those moments, sport is joy. It is fun.
As adults we sometimes forget this. Our motivations change. We might play sport to get fit, or lose weight. We might be elite athletes training hard, looking for constant improvement and success.
But for kids, fun is consistently ranked as one of the best predictors of whether they will continue to participate. Kids play for love of the game.
Unfortunately, as they transition from primary to high school, sport can stop being fun. When this happens, kids start to drop out. This affects boys too, but it is a particularly critical time for girls. At this age, body image becomes an increasingly influential factor.
Skill level also becomes more noticeable and girls tend to be more conscious than boys about whether they are “good at sport,” in the same way girls appear to be sensitive to “aptitude” in other areas. At the same time, the focus of organised sport often shifts from fun to competition.
While these opportunities for serious competition are critical for our young athletes who aspire to future success, we also need to make sure there are opportunities for those kids who just want to play the game.
Coaches, teachers and parents need to be aware of trying to create a fun sporting environment, particularly around the start of high school. You might:
- Make training fun by using a range of games, not just the same old drills. Keep training active and try not to have kids sitting around waiting.
- Recognise that kids have different skill levels and have realistic expectations. Try not to analyse a child’s performance after every game.
- Organise social activities outside of games and training. Kids enjoy the social aspect of sport too.
- Promote an environment of positivity and discourage teasing. Sometimes it helps to have ‘girls only’ training sessions.
- Make sure that girls have proper facilities to get changed into sports gear, and that they feel comfortable in their uniforms.
- Take girls to watch a women’s sport event. Show them heroes they can relate to.
- These are just some of the ways we can try to keep sport fun.
Even elite athletes need reminding about the joy of sport every now and again. As Mia Hamm once said:
“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her”.
Not only does this help us adults remember why we started playing, it might also remind us of what is important to our kids.