I recently interviewed Stephen Nedoroscik, a male gymnast who will represent Team USA at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as a pommel horse specialist. During the course of our conversation, he mentioned briefly quitting the sport when he was about 10 years old.
When I asked him why, he replied simply, “I just wanted to be a normal kid.”
The grueling hours of training, competition and high expectations took a toll on him physically and mentally. After a few weeks of being a normal kid, Nedoroscik realized how much he missed gymnastics, and told his mom he was ready to return.
His story isn’t unique. While the brief time off rejuvenated his passion, many kids walk away and never return. You’ve probably seen the numerous studies that estimate about 70 percent of kids quit sports before reaching their teen years. The biggest reason: it’s not fun anymore.
When parents hire private instructors for their seven-year-old, or college recruiters start paying attention to kids as early as middle school, it’s no wonder burnout is such a huge problem in youth sports. As the mom of a travel softball player told me, “my 13-year-old daughter doesn’t know what she’s having for lunch, much less where she’ll go to college.”
There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition. In fact, it often shows up at an early age. A child who wants to race a parent or sibling to the house is already demonstrating that competitive rush.
But according to Reed Maltbie of Changing the Game Project, an organization devoted to giving youth sports back to the athletes, adults have a different definition of fun than most kids.
“Adults think fun is what it would be like to be a five-year-old playing, where it’s all games and there’s no seriousness and competitiveness,” Maltbie told me in a 2018 interview.
Kids often identify fun with winning, developing new skills, and constantly being challenged. But when their perspective clashes with the unreasonable expectations of a coach or parent, sports is no longer enjoyable.
How can competition and fun co-exist in a culture that emphasizes winning above all else? Here are five ways coaches and even parents can create an environment that allows plenty of room for both.
1. Set reachable goals
Macaroni Kid, a site devoted to empowering families with tips and resources in communities throughout the United States, recommends asking several important questions before each season your child is involved in sports. What are they looking forward to the most? What is their definition of fun versus success?
Once a parent is armed with the answers to those questions, it’s a lot easier to figure out what their child’s goals are. If they’re new to a sport, it may be as simple as learning to play to the best of their ability. If they’re more experienced, it might be learning a new skill or improving on an existing one, such as perfecting a jump shot in basketball.
Setting realistic goals will not only help a young athlete be more successful, it will give him or her the pleasure that comes with accomplishment.
2. Outline your expectations
Like parents, coaches need to know the goals of each player on the team to get the most out of them. Once they determine that, it’s important to communicate your expectations to them at the beginning of each season.
Steven Cournoyer, a speaker and youth coach in Holyoke, Massachusetts, told me it’s the head coach’s responsibility to make sure everyone is on the same page, from the assistant coach to the last player on the bench.
“It takes a village,” Cournoyer explained. “I’m setting those expectations with my coaches, then giving them powerful positions in the organization so they’re responsible for something, then build them up to the players.”
If every member of the team knows what the coach expects from them, they’re more likely to buy in. This creates better team chemistry and a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
3. Make learning fun
There seems to be a mistaken impression that learning is all work and no play. We’ve probably had teachers, coaches, bosses and even parents express this in one way or another.
It doesn’t have to be that way, says sports psychologist Justin Anderson.
“Athletes who have more fun will perform better,” Anderson told Teamgenius.com. “Kids are there to learn, and they can’t do it in a negative or stressful environment.”
It’s easy to fall into a routine of intense practices to get players “game-ready.” Loosening up or getting creative every once in a while builds positive energy that can lead to better performance.
4. Create bonding on and off the field
Sports is more than building physical skills and mental character; it’s a social outlet. A team that spends a lot of time together has the opportunity to become as close as a family, sharing the ups and downs of a season.
This is especially important for athletes at the high school level, who must work harder to stay competitive. Family coach Janis Meredith believes competition creates a bond players will treasure long after they stop playing.
“Many people say their high school sports days were the most memorable of all, as they formed close-knit bonds with their teammates who competed alongside them,” Meredith wrote on USA Football’s blog.
Coaches should also encourage social interaction away from the game, whether it’s catching a movie or getting involved in a community project. As players learn to support and interact with each other, the bond becomes stronger.
5. Let players show their goofy side
There’s a time to be serious and a time to let your hair down. Even winning teams at the highest level know this, and are quite good at striking that balance.
The UCLA Bruins softball team is a prime example. In 14 seasons as head coach, Kelly Inouye-Perez has a .783 winning percentage and led the Bruins to the 2019 Women’s College World Series championship.
One of the keys to her success is giving each player the freedom to be themselves. It’s not unusual to see someone dancing around or being goofy during practice.
“It is intoxicating, the energy they have,” Inouye-Perez told me in a December 2020 story for FloSoftball. “It creates an environment where the younger girls are comfortable seeing how they are managing their work. As a result, the freshmen are more comfortable being themselves.”
Contrary to the old-school thought that sweat and hard work are the only paths to winning, it is possible for athletes to achieve success and enjoy the experience. Long after their playing careers are over, they will cherish the memories they made with teammates more than wins, losses or championships.
Meredith sums it up this way: “Sports should always be fun. Otherwise, why go through all the hard work?”
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About the Creator
Stephen has covered sports as a journalist for over 30 years. His passion for creating a better sports environment for kids led him to devote his full attention to tackling issues facing youth sports. Follow him on Twitter: @smkwriter1