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What makes organized sports fun for kids?

A group at George Washington University (GWU), led by associate professor Amanda J. Visek, has been studying this question. The research is important because lots of kids give up playing sports around age 13 or 14.

The reason kids quit? They say sports aren’t fun anymore. So if the people at GWU can figure out what makes sports fun, maybe more kids will play longer and develop better lifelong health and exercise habits.

First, Visek and her colleagues brainstormed with more than 200 Washington-area players, coaches and parents of recreational and travel soccer teams. The group identified 81 things (called “fun determinants”) that can make sports fun.

Then they asked the players (ages 8 to 18) to rate how important each thing was to their enjoyment of playing organized sports. (I should note most of the kids played other sports in addition to soccer.)

This ranking of the 81 fun determinants revealed some surprises. You know how people are always asking whether your team won the game? Well, the players ranked “winning” as only the 40th most important fun determinant.

Lots of kids spend their weekends traveling to sports tournaments. But the players rated “playing in tournaments” and “traveling to new places to play” as only the 58th and 71st most important fun determinant.

What did the players say made sports fun? They ranked “trying your best,” “exercising and being active” and “getting along with your teammates” in the top 10 most important fun determinants.

More recently, the GWU group compared male and female athletes’ attitudes on what makes sports fun. They also compared younger athletes with older athletes as well as recreational athletes and kids who play on travel teams.

The recent study revealed more surprises. Some people think girls like sports because they want to be with their friends, while boys like to compete. The studies, however, showed the girls’ and boys’ attitudes were more alike than different.

It’s true boys placed slightly more importance on “improving athletic skills to play at the next level” and “copying the tricks of professional athletes,” but for the most part, the GWU study found male and female athletes’ answers were very close.

The same was true for younger and older players as well as recreational and travel athletes. Although there were some differences between the groups — younger players, for example, like “playing different positions” more than older players — the groups shared lots of the same attitudes toward what makes sports fun.

So what can we learn from the GWU studies? As Visek observed, “When it comes to organized sports, kids just want to have fun.”

Maybe everyone should listen to the kids.