Kids don’t begin playing sport with the sole intention of winning. Multiple studies of children from various sports and different competitive levels all reveal children’s main reason for participating is to have fun.
So what does it say when one sport implements a ‘mercy’ rule in an endeavour to avoid astronomical losses and ‘preserve the fun’, while another sport eliminates the mercy rule saying it sucks the fun out of playing because it promotes the idea that losing is shameful?
Perhaps it suggests that although sports are rightly focused on embedding the ‘fun’ factor, they are not yet in agreement on how best to deliver it, or even understand how children define fun in terms of their sport.
Throw into the mix parents or guardians who lobby sports administrators and say that seeing their child lose week after week is no fun for them, and sports face a growing dilemma.
A 2010 joint study by American researchers at the University of Utah and Clemson University found that a key problem for children’s sport administration is satisfying two very different consumers—the parents (who decide whether or not their child participates) and the children (for whom the sport’s program is designed).
Various studies have shown that parents choose sport programs for their children based on wanting to give them opportunities to develop or socialise, become healthier, responsible, goal-driven, and self-motivated.
Yet parents are not only the critical ‘facilitators’ of sport opportunities for their children, they also serve a role in influencing their child’s interpretation of the sport. Parents who overemphasise a return on their own investment (financial, time and emotional) and/or outcome goals for their child’s sport create stress, uncertainty and a lack of motivation in their children.
Children, meanwhile look to participate in activities in which they are reasonably confident, that provide them with opportunities to be physically active, to socialise with friends, and above all, to have fun.
And what do they consider fun? According to participants in a 2014 George Washington University study, the top answers were:
- Trying your best.
- When the coach treats a player with respect.
- Getting playing time.
- Playing well as a team.
- Getting along with team mates.
- Being active.
They ranked winning at 48th in their list.
Underlying many of the most recent studies is the common theme that children judge their experiences by different standards and values, and have different (often less set or concrete) thresholds than their parents.
Parents, who believe an accent on winning is an important part of the ‘learning’ opportunities of sport, frequently view children’s sport as they likely would view adult endeavours, concentrating on the final score as the only measure of success and the most important outcome of the game.
For children skill development and interacting with their friends are the crucial aspects of fun. Kids do love to compete against one another because that is how they measure their abilities, their development and their progress, but they don’t necessarily consider the score line. While they often want to know the score and may even cry if they lose, most don’t obsess over the results unlike their parents, according to sport psychologists.
So five weeks of losing by more than 30 goals may be inconsequential to children who feel they are still improving their skills and/or spending time with their mates, provided the win/loss situation is not overemphasised by the adults around them. This includes coaches.
The challenge is for sports administrators then, is two-fold.
Firstly, they need to redefine and broaden the definitions of winning so that children are focused on self improvement and individual goal attainment and to recognise and celebrate as children achieve those goals.
Secondly, they need to help parents reach an understanding that children define ‘fun’ very differently.
Suggested ways of doing this include:
- Create ‘competitive balance’ in competitions so that outcomes are in doubt. When necessary, reorganise teams to balance opportunities.
- Ask the children who may be involved in a ‘losing’ streak if they are still having fun, and if not, what they feel can be done to re-inject the fun.
- Embed a discussion about program priorities with parents and guardians at the start of every season.
- Emphasise those priorities in all communication.
- Encourage and facilitate training and education opportunities for coaches that focus on greater understanding of child development, the ‘fun’ factor, and individual goal setting.
- Encourage parents to demonstrate that they are focused on their child’s skill development and fun by avoiding questions about score lines and instead acknowledging their child’s effort and asking how they feel; whether they learned something new; or improved their skills.