Are We Having Fun Yet?

March 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Tesh was on the Fox news show this morning talking about kids’ sports and the emphasis on winning. Kids themselves, in surveys about why they play sports, put winning far down the list, and the main reason kids drop out of sports is that they weren’t having fun. (I cannot find the original study by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, only references to it online.) Tesh blamed the winning-is-everything approach on parents.

Sure, it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence of overly competitive parents overly involved in their kids’ sports. But the pressure on winning comes as much from the organization of the game as from the people involved. As soon as you set up a formal structure — leagues with teams, uniforms, schedules, rules, won-lost records and other statistics — your focus is no longer on the fun of playing. Instead, the point of the game is to work towards some future measurable goal, a championship. And there lies the contradiction: fun isn’t in the future, it’s in the present. And it can’t be easily measured. Championships are about winning, not about fun.

Pick-up games are much less organized, and they are much more fun. They have no prizes, no championships. They have no permanent teams, no uniforms, no scheduling, no record keeping. The kid’s first objective is to play; winning is secondary. For example, in baseball, what do you do if you have only 13 players instead of the officially requisite eighteen (nine to a side)? In pick-up games, kids think up all kinds of solutions; they think outside the box of official baseball rules. You improvise positions and rules (no right field hitting, batting team supplies the catcher, etc.). As kids leave or arrive, teams change, so it’s not clear which team is winning. Often the game doesn’t really end, it fades out, so you can’t really say what the final score was or who won. And yet, despite the fuzziness over the winner or the score, you’ve managed to play baseball for hours.

What about a league game? If fewer than nine kids from one team show up, it’s a forfeit, and nobody plays. The message here is clear: determining the winner is more important than having a good game. Or any game at all. But that’s because of the organized structure, not the people involved. Put these same people in a pick-up game, and they’d have no such problem.

Yet grown-ups continue to organize kids’ games and to force children’s play within the rigid structures of teams and leagues, coaches and practices, record-keeping and trophies. Of course, the parents (most of them) tell the kids that the important thing is to have fun. But despite what the parents say, everything they do points in the other direction, towards winning.

I’m reminded of a line from the British movie “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” The protagonist, a young schoolgirl, has just done badly in some school competition (not sports), and a grown-up tries to console her: “Winning isn’t the important thing.”

“Then why is that what they give the prizes for?” asks the girl.

Why indeed? It’s not hypocrisy—I’m sure most grown-ups mean what they say about fun and winning —it’s just ignorance about social structures and how they shape our ideas about what’s important.


Kirk Mango said...

Very interesting article. Fun in sports should not only come from the enjoyment of playing but also from the improvements one has as they practice and play the game. "Fun" should generate from the inside not the outside, as in winning. Sure winning is fun for many but it is an outcome of something and should never be the main reason one plays or is involved in sports.

Again, good post with some food for thought. I have written a post on this same subject that you might have some interest in. Blog address below.


Kirk Mango
Author: Becoming a True Champion

Blog: The Athletes Sports Experience

Kirk Mango said...

If you want the direct link to the article here it is:

Kirk Mango
Author: Becoming a True Champion
Blog Article on Fun in Sports: The “FUN” in Sports Participation