The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new study about what makes sports fun for kids finds that winning isn’t everything

(John Dorton Photography/For US Youth Soccer)
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In the decade that Devon Mann has been playing soccer, there’s one specific day that stands out for the 17-year-old. The D.C. State Soccer Tournament was on the line, and his team from Maret School had held on into penalty kicks.

“It was the highest-stakes game I’ve ever played,” Mann says. “It was exhilarating and so much fun.”

But none of his joy came from a trophy. The outcome of that shootout? “We lost,” Mann says.

Turns out, winning really isn’t everything. Dozens of other factors are more important for keeping kids interested in sports, according to a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health. Author Amanda Visek, an assistant professor in the department of exercise science at George Washington University, set out to understand why so many young people abandon athletics.

“Sport has so much to offer kids. But it’s predicated on them playing and continuing to play, and we lose 70 percent of them by the age of 13,” she says. So Visek decided to tackle the issue by focusing on “fun.”

“The No. 1 reason kids play sports is because it’s fun. If they drop out, it’s because it’s not fun anymore,” Visek says. “So fun is that central concept we need to know more about.”

To quantify this elusive idea, she reached out to more than 200 soccer players, parents and coaches in the D.C. area, including Mann and his mother, Melissa, 48, who’s the manager of her son’s travel team.

Mann’s mom admits her gut reaction was, “Do they really need to study that?” But then she remembered how many of her son’s teammates had moved on in recent years. Plus, she was interested in how he would define his experiences.

So they both dove into the first phase of the study, in which participants were asked to list the elements that make sports fun.

Visek was blown away by the response. “We think of fun as one thing,” she says, but the group came up with 81 specific statements, including “playing your  favorite position,” “learning from mistakes” and “being around your friends.”

For the next phase, participants ranked these statements — with some surprising results.

Winning, Visek points out, is 48th. So more than half of the other statements were ranked higher. By grouping the answers by topic, Visek identified the three most important dimensions: being a good sport, trying hard and positive coaching.

This wasn’t news to Mann. “If you’re winning, that’s never going to be a negative,” he says.

But what inspires him is the connection he has with his teams and his coaches. He’s built up years of shared experiences with them, and they’ve developed rituals that have strengthened their bonds. They take practices and games seriously, so no matter what happens, he feels rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.

Now that he also referees and coaches soccer for younger kids, Mann understands that not everyone is as fortunate: “Some coaches scream the whole time. And some only play the best players.”

That kind of behavior creates barriers to fun, which Visek is exploring with her next study. Another issue, she says, is the scourge of competitive parents. They too need to learn that winning isn’t everything.

Ranking Fun

For the study, researchers asked participants — players, parents and coaches — to generate a list
of elements that make youth sports “fun.” The group came up with 81 separate statements. They were then asked to rate the importance of each. At the top of the list were these items. Most of them are related to being a good sport, trying hard and positive coaching.

  • Trying your best
  • When a coach treats players with respect
  • Getting playing time
  • Playing well together as a team
  • Getting along with teammates
  • Exercising and being active
  • Working hard
  • When a coach encourages the team
  • Having a coach who’s a positive
    role model
  • Playing well during a game

Source: “The Fun Integration Theory” in the journal of Physical Activity & Health

Americans Will Definitely Win This One

Sports fans looking for a fun way to fill the World Cup void can cheer on players competing in the 2014 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships (, which start today at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md. (Action from last year’s competition is pictured above.) The six-day event features teams in seven age groups, ranging from under 13 to 19. It takes hard work to get to this level, says Larry Best, director of coaching for the Braddock Road Youth Club Elite Academy in Fairfax. His team of high school girls has qualified for the third year in a row. Their secret: five two-hour sessions a week that hone strength, speed, skills and strategy. But the goal of all of those practices isn’t just to get goals, Best says. It’s to appreciate teamwork, and learn how to play with others. “These are good life lessons when you go into the work world,” he says. And what happens there might be even more important than nationals. Stephanie Kanowitz (For Express)

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