New Study Dispels Myths about What Makes Youth Sports Fun

Girls and boys alike say trying your best and working hard—as opposed to winning—are key to having fun.

youth sports research
New research from the Milken Institute School of Public Healths suggests that coaches and parents may be missing the mark if they focus on a winning season or mistakenly reinforce perceived gender differences.
November 14, 2019

A new study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health finds common gender stereotypes about what makes youth sports fun for girls and boys are not supported by research.

This research, led by Amanda J. Visek, an associate professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, dispels the popular myth that girls are motivated by the social aspects of sports, like friendship, and the competition is what makes sports fun for boys.

“Our data indicate girls and boys are more similar than different when it comes to what makes playing sports fun,” Dr. Visek said. “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.”

Dr. Visek’s study is a follow up to research she and her colleagues at Milken Institute SPH previously conducted that engaged soccer players ages 8 to 19 in concept mapping all of the determinants that make playing sports fun for players. 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.

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

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

The study found some differences in fun priorities, depending on the age or gender of the young athletes. For example, younger players reported it was more important to have a coach who allowed them to play different positions than older players. This study’s findings underscore other research that suggests younger players are more likely to benefit from this strategy compared to older, more developed athletes.

Boys also rated “copying the moves and tricks of professional athletes” and “improving athletic skills to play at the next level” as more important to having fun on the playing field when compared to girls. Dr. Visek and her research team think 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.

This study’s findings can be used by sport organizations to make their programs more fun and keep kids playing longer, Dr. Visek said. Children in the United States who drop out of organized sports typically do so by middle school, claiming that games and practices aren’t fun anymore.

Importantly, organized sports are one way to keep kids engaged in physical activity—a habit that can help kids sustain a healthy lifestyle. Providing kids with higher quality, more fun sport experiences might be one solution toward promoting children’s health, Dr. Visek said.

All the participants of this study were soccer players. Dr. 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, Dr. Visek said additional research is necessary to ensure the findings apply to other team sports as well.

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