What Is the Top ‘Fun’ Factor in Youth Sports?

Milken Institute SPH researcher studies how to keep kids in the game.

soccer kids
A study led by Milken Institute School of Public Health Associate Professor Amanda J. Visek found that being a good sport, trying hard and positive coaching were the most important "fun" factors in youth sports.
July 14, 2014

When it comes to making sports fun for kids, winning isn’t everything, says a first-of-its-kind study from researchers in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

In fact, the researchers found that winning, along with other mental bonuses, ranked near the bottom of 81 determinants of fun. By contrast, being a good sport, trying hard and positive coaching all ranked high.

“The results of the study are pretty significant, because the number one reason that kids cite for dropping out of sport is that it isn’t fun anymore,” said Amanda J. Visek, an associate professor of exercise science in the Milken Institute SPH, who led the study.

The study may help researchers develop proven ways to keep kids involved in organized sports. It is estimated that about 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by the time they reach middle school—a statistic that worries public health officials, because it is thought to contribute to the rising prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity in the United States.

To conduct the study, Dr. Visek and her research team used a method called concept mapping. First, they asked 142 soccer players, 37 coaches and 57 parents to identify all of the things that make playing sports fun for kids. When all of their ideas were pooled and synthesized, 81 specific determinants of fun were identified. Next, the study participants were asked to sort the 81 fun determinants in a way that made sense to them and then finally to rate the determinants on their importance, frequency and feasibility.

“The maps ended up being educational blueprints that the youth sport community can use in order to infuse more fun into the youth sport experience,” Dr. Visek said.

The study showed that:

  • There are four fundamental tenets to creating fun—internal, external, social and contextual factors that make up the complete fun experience for kids.
  • Eleven fun factors lie within the fundamental tenets and include being a good sport, trying hard, positive coaching, learning and improving, game time support, games, practices, team friendships, mental bonuses, team rituals and swag.
  • The 11 fun factors are each defined by the various 81 fun-determinants—specific, actionable behaviors that foster fun.
  • Among the 11 fun factors, being a good sport, trying hard and positive coaching were the most important when it comes to fun; together, these three factors were coined the “youth sport ethos”—a collection of 28 fun-determinants that set the standard for promoting a culture of fun.
  • Swag—such as having a cool uniform or the latest sports gear—was rated as the least important determinant of fun.

Dr. Visek said these results may offer positive surprises for coaches and parents.

“In the youth sport culture today we place such a great significance on winning,” Dr. Visek said. “This study is helpful, in that the data really give light to the fact that when it comes to creating a culture of fun, it’s really about the process of learning and the process of playing, rather than materialistic or ostentatious things—like swag or getting metals and trophies. These are things that a lot of times adults tend to place greater emphasis on than the children do themselves.”

The full results of this innovative study appeared July 10 online in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health. All of the study participants were involved in organized youth soccer programs in the larger Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. However, over 75 percent of the kids who participated in the study also played sports other than just soccer.

An estimated 60 million boys and girls participate in organized sports, and public health researchers hope to discover elements that will help keep them involved for the long haul.

“Keeping kids involved in sports in childhood and throughout their adolescence would be a significant public health breakthrough. The FUN MAPS can help do that,” Dr. Visek said. “Moreover, the longer we can keep them participating in sport, the greater likelihood we have of helping them establish a habit of regular physical activity for the rest of their lives.”