In our work we often cite the fantastic work done by Amanda J. Visek, PhD and her team around what exactly makes playing sports fun for our children. We have known for many years that fun is key to why our children play sport, though what precisely makes it fun? Unpacking what fun is for our youth athletes is incredibly important because when sport stops being fun children stop playing or move into other activities.
In her initial work mapping fun with young athletes, the overwhelming conclusion was that, according to them, the experience of having fun while playing sport is made up of 81 specific actions and behaviours (called fun-determinants) and that young athletes themselves, coaches, teammates, parents, officials, playing conditions, and the organisational structure of practices and games (see infographic) each play a critical role. In retrospect, that makes perfect sense doesn’t it?
As you can see from the infographic here, these fun determinants can range from ‘getting and staying in shape’ ‘helping support teammates’, ‘getting playing time’ to ‘winning’ and ‘playing in tournaments’ – to name a few. The key is to promote, encourage, create as many of these fun-determinants as possible in children’s sporting experiences.
This is why we encourage parents to check in with their children on a regular basis. Asking your child-athlete whether they had fun and what was the most fun during that day’s practice or game – and even what was not fun – can help us us understand their motivations and immediate feedback we need to best support them along their sporting journey. You can read more about this here.
Interestingly, we are prone to believing that winning and scoring would be high on the adult agenda of what is fun (and it probably is for adults) and important for their children. However, whilst winning may be a determinant of what makes the experience fun for children, it doesn’t make the top of the list in terms of importance. In fact, it falls in the middle of the list of 81 fun-determinants, when rated from most important to least important. This causes the most surprise when we present this information in our workshops. Upon further reflection though, this too makes sense, does it not? Winning is simply the outcome of the competitive match, though the process of playing and moving and being challenged is what Dr. Visek’s research is finding is of greater importance. Indeed, children, who authored the FUN MAPS identified trying hard, being challenged in learning environments, setting goals and working toward achieving them, and having the opportunity to play and compete as fun.
While we think our children are often motivated by different things or that what is fun for one child is dramatically different to another, emerging research is finding that this is not the case.
In her most recent work, Dr. Visek has found interesting trends related to girls and boys. In sport, we girls and boys are often separated believing that they require different approaches and different learning environments. This is indeed right for a number of reasons, however their motivations and what they find fun are more similar to one another than we previously thought.
I am delighted to be joined by Dr. Visek herself to explain more…
‘Thank you to Working With Parents in Sport for the opportunity to expand on what the research is finding, so far, which largely debunks long held expectations and stereotypes about what is fun for our athletes.
Typically, people expect sex (girls compared to boys), age (younger athletes compared to older athletes), and playing level (grassroots recreational sport compared to highly select, competitive travel sport) differences when it comes to what makes sport fun. Meaning, the tendency is to believe that girls and boys, younger and older, and recreational and competive sport athletes are demonstrably different from one another in creating fun playing experiences and fueling their motivations to continue playing.
The research data, however, does not support this – and in fact indicates that young athletes are more similar to one another than different. Thus, what is most fun for girls is largely the same for boys and this trend holds for age and playing level as well. While these findings may come as a surprise, what we know from developmental psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural neuroendocrinology actually supports the absence of differences found.
What is really exciting about these findings is that when doing workshops, clinics, and keynotes around the world sharing the FUN MAPS research findings, you can see girls and women in the audience who feel like they have finally been heard – that what they want and desire from sport – what drives them to continue playing, to excel, and that is fun – is the same as the boys and men.’
Amanda J. Visek, PhD, CMPC is an Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., USA. Her translational approach to scientific research has focused on the application of pediatric sport psychology to issues of public health, namely improving child and adolescent health outcomes by establishing sport participation as a public health practice through safe, positive physical activity and human movement experiences that are fun.