A new study from George Washington University looks at what makes organized sports fun for kids, and some of the findings might surprise you. It dispels the popular myth that what makes sports the most fun for girls are the social aspects, like friendships, while for boys the fun factor has to do with competition.

“Our data indicate girls and boys are more similar than different when it comes to what makes playing sports fun,” said Amanda J. Visek, PhD, an associate professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University. “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.”

But there are some small yet intriguing 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.

“Sport sampling — allowing kids to play several different sports — as well as the opportunity for kids, especially those at younger ages, to get experience playing all of the different positions within a sport, is important for their athletic development,” Visek said.

In addition, boys 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. 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.

These findings, among others that the study unveils, can be used by sport organizations to make their programs more fun and thus keep kids playing longer. Kids in the United States who drop out of organized sports typically do so by middle school, claiming that games and practices just aren’t fun anymore.

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

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

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