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What Makes Sports Fun for Kids? Winning Isn’t Everything

While many kids love organized sports, there are probably just as many who would rather play video games. So what exactly makes youth sports fun? New research on this topic reveals some surprising results.

The study found that “trying your best” and “working hard” were two of the top-rated fun factors. In fact, the research dispels the popular myth that, for girls, the most enjoyable aspect of organized sports is the socializing, and for boys, it is the competition.

“Our data indicate girls and boys are more similar than different when it comes to what makes playing sports fun,” said Amanda J. Visek, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH).

“What counts most for girls and boys are things like ‘trying your best,’ ‘working hard,’ ‘staying active,’ and ‘playing well together as a team.’ These findings are the same for athletes at younger and older ages and across recreational and more competitive levels of play.”

The findings can be used by sport organizations to make their programs more fun and thus keep kids playing longer. Kids in the United States who drop out of organized sports typically do so by middle school, claiming that games and practices just aren’t fun anymore.

The new research follows another study in which Visek and her colleagues engaged soccer players, ages 8 to 19, in concept mapping everything that makes playing sports fun.

The resultant maps, called FUN MAPS, uncovered 81 fun-determinants within 11 fun-factors. This new study took a closer look at that data and found that, among the 81 determinants of fun, ‘winning’ ranked No. 40 in importance, scoring farther down on the list than many might have guessed.

At the same time, the researchers did find some small yet intriguing differences in fun priorities, depending on the age or gender of the young athletes.

For example, compared to older players, younger players reported it was more important to have a coach who allowed them to “play different positions.” This study confirms previous research suggesting that younger players are more likely to benefit from this strategy compared to older, more developed athletes.

“Sport sampling — allowing kids to play several different sports — as well as the opportunity for kids, especially those at younger ages, to get experience playing all of the different positions within a sport, is important for their athletic development,” Visek said.

Furthermore, compared to girls, boys rated “copying the moves and tricks of professional athletes” and “improving athletic skills to play at the next level” as more important fun factors.

The research team thinks this might be a result of boys having more male professional athletes to look up to and identify with than girls, who have fewer female professional athletes to emulate.

Organized sports are one way to keep kids engaged in physical activity, a habit that can help kids sustain a healthy lifestyle, keep them fit, and help them maintain a healthy body weight. More than one out of three U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and Visek believes that providing kids with higher quality, more fun sport experiences might be one solution toward promoting children’s health.

One limitation of this study was that the participants were all soccer players. Visek’s research team asked the players to rate the importance of all the determinants and to respond keeping in mind all of the sports they play.

Although most of the players were multi-sport athletes who participated in other sports in addition to soccer, Visek says additional research is necessary to ensure the findings apply to other team sports, as well.

The findings of this study suggest that coaches and parents may be missing the mark if they push a winning season or mistakenly reinforce perceived gender differences.

“When it comes to organized sports, kids just want to have fun,” Visek said. “This research does not support the common gender and developmental stereotypes we tend to make about kids in sports.”

Source: George Washington University

What Makes Sports Fun for Kids? Winning Isn’t Everything

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). What Makes Sports Fun for Kids? Winning Isn’t Everything. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Nov 2019 (Originally: 23 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Nov 2019
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