Encouraging Teamwork, Not Winning, Helps Kids Get Into Sports

A new study shows that young athletes prioritize trying their best, working hard, being active, and playing well together.
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New research from George Washington University has uncovered what kids love most about playing sports—and, contrary to what your coach might have told you when you were growing up, it’s not winning. Kids’ love of the game comes down to trying hard, positive team dynamics, and encouraging coaching, according to the study, which was published Thursday in the Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal.


To figure out what makes sports fun to kids, researchers examined 141 children who played soccer at either a recreational or competitive travel level. The kids were asked to rank a list of factors (called “fun determinants” in the study) that make sports fun. Most of the kids had the same priorities, regardless of their age, level of play, and gender: They prioritized trying their best, working hard, exercising and being active, and playing well together as a team. Of the 81 fun determinants, winning ranked as 40th. (A fun aside: Getting their portrait taken came in dead last.)

These findings contradict the previous societal notion that boys and girls have very different priorities when it comes to sports (you know, the age-old stereotype that boys are thirsty for competition and girls like picking daisies in the field). The researchers hope the learnings will help create new, gender-equitable opportunities for how we approach youth sports.

"Simply put, the sporting needs, wants, and desires of girls and boys are essentially the same,” lead researcher Amanda J. Visek, PhD, an associate professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, said, adding, “The gender stereotypes we tend to hold about girls and boys are not scientifically valid, and in the end, constrain girls and boys both on and off the playing field and only perpetuate what are, in the end, misperceived differences not supported by research.”

The research team hopes the findings will encourage youth leagues to focus less on winning and more on those top fun factors. Many kids in the U.S. stop participating in sports around the start of adolescence, mainly because they just don’t find games and practices fun anymore. This type of shift could keep kids engaged in organized sports longer, and according to Visek, kids who play sports are more likely to do better in school, maintain a healthy body weight, and be physically active well into adulthood.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hint from Norway: Thanks to a set of rules released in 1987, the country doesn’t even keep track of scores in youth sports until the kids are 13. Norway took home 39 medals during the 2018 Winter Olympics—more than any other country.

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