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(Just) For Fun


I was recently working with an athlete and we were reflecting on an exercise I've done with many teams and athletes. The exercise involves brainstorming a list of reasons why you participate in your sport or performance arena. I ask athletes to think about why they started playing, why they kept playing, and why they continue to play. Why this activity and not another? The goal is to come up with a list that can be boiled down to your most important motivators.

What got you started and keeps you going?

I've done this same exercise with many different groups now and, time and time again, we've ended up with a very similar list. Things like stress relief, personal growth and challenge, mental and physical health, feelings of accomplishment, and social connections are often high on the list, but the one most common reason, no matter the age, gender, or competitive level, is fun. When it comes down to it, enjoyment, or a love of the activity, is the single most important motivator for most people.

Enjoyment is the most important motivator for most people

Now I haven't asked this of any professional athletes, but I would wager that any athlete who makes it to that level would consider themselves lucky to be paid to do something that they want to do anyway because they love it. In fact, I would wager that most highly successful people are successful because they are doing something that they love. Take Wayne Gretzky for example who, in his recent film, says, of his early backyard practice, “I’d be out there all day long because I loved it.” And this makes sense too because when we look at types of motivation we know that the strongest, most adaptive, and longest lasting type is intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation basically means that we are motivated by the inherent joy in the activity itself - in other words: fun. (Want to know more about motivation? Check out my post on Understanding Motivation).

Being an elite performer or a professional in your field means getting to do the thing you love more often, and maybe even getting paid to do it!

Stay with me here because this is where we struggle. The athlete I was working with, who was training for a major international competition, was getting hung up on the fact that it's hard work. It was fun at first, but now it's really hard work. Some of you might be thinking something similar. "This is a competitive league, we have to take it seriously." "We're a varsity team, it's not just for fun anymore." "The stakes are too high for us to just have fun." But the fact of the matter is that we perform our best when we are fully engaged in a task we enjoy. Performing well, working hard at something you care about, striving for improvement, working towards a common goal with friends, mastering a new skill, competing at the highest level...these things are fun. You might not have a smile on your face the whole time, you might be in a lot of physical and mental pain at times, you might be doing a lot of hard work even outside of training and competing, but that doesn't mean it can't also be fun.

Effort does not limit fun

When we say "just for fun" we imply that fun can't also be competitive and serious; that fun can't lead to success (or perhaps that enjoyment itself is not success enough); and that something challenging can't be fun. The research, however, tells a different story. To help explain let me use the competence motivation theory (CMT). CMT posits a cyclical relationship in which perceptions of competence and control lead to intrinsic pleasure and effectance motivation, which leads to mastery attempts, competence at optimal challenges, and feedback and reinforcement from socializers. These then lead back to pleasure and perceptions of competence and control. In other words, believing you are good at something and can improve at it feels good and is motivating, and that joy and motivation helps you to work harder and take on bigger challenges. You also receive more positive support and encouragement from others and end up feeling even better and strengthening your belief that you are good and can improve, and, thus, the cycle continues. All of that to say that having fun makes you better and working hard to get better is fun.

Having fun helps you improve

If you're still feeling a bit skeptical, part of the problem may be your definition of fun. Researchers, like Dr. Amanda Visek, have dissected the word fun to try to determine all of the different factors that are encompassed within it. In her ground-breaking study of players, parents, and coaches of boys' and girls', recreational and competitive youth soccer teams, Dr. Visek found 81 separate determinants of fun, which, through mapping, she was able to group into 11 fun dimensions and four overarching fun-damental tenets. If you are involved with youth sports I strongly encourage you to take a closer look at her work yourself (she has also done work looking at what factors make sport not fun and *spoiler alert* a lot of them are things that we as adults do or control), but the point I'd like to take out of this, for now, is that fun encompasses a large and diverse collection of factors.

Working hard and trying your best are two important fun factors

While, in this study, they were able to identify the three most important dimensions as 'being a good sport,' 'trying hard,' and 'positive coaching,' this broad spectrum should remind us that different factors are going to be more or less important for different individuals and within different contexts. Fun evolves over time as athletes and performers become older and more experienced and as the context changes, but, the emotion, I would argue, doesn't change. Fun or joy is something we should all be striving for regardless of age, gender, or experience level - and it's not unreasonable for us to expect to achieve it.

Positive coaching experiences help make sport fun

Take some time to think about what makes sport (or your activity of choice) fun for you, your participants, and your children. Ask yourself, and them, that question, and really listen to what the answers are. Even if you're starting (or hoping to start) something new, ask yourself, "What would make this fun for me?" or "What have I enjoyed about other activities that could apply here as well?" Use those answers to help you make decisions about what activity to choose or how to modify what your involvement might look like. Remember, activities don't have to be just for fun, but they should at least be also fun. Let's change the way we think about fun and start having more of it!

Let me know how it goes, or reach out to me if you have questions or would like to chat.

And if you're still feeling skeptical...check out this article from 1992 (with research going back to the 70s!). We've known for a long time that fun is an important factor keeping kids in sport and the opposite is driving them away. I think it's about time we did something about it.



Petlichkoff, L. M. (1992). Youth Sport Participation and Withdrawal:
Is It Simply a Matter of FUN? Pediatric Exercise Science, 4, 105-110

Visek, A. J., Achrati, S. M., Mannix, H., McDonnell, K., Harris, B. S., & DiPietro, L. (2014). The fun integration theory: toward sustaining children and adolescents sport participation. Journal of physical activity & health12(3), 424-33.

female youth softball pitcher

Navigating Youth Sport


I hesitate to write this post because I know it is a topic that can be polarizing. I also know that it is a very important topic and one that needs to be spoken about so, I will write this, but with the preface that I am not judging; I realize that most people are really just trying to do what is best and that sometimes it is just hard to know what that is. I truly believe that sport can and should be a positive experience for all involved no matter the level. Bear with me through some scary talk about the risk factors and potential negative outcomes of youth sport (especially competitive or elite youth sport) and I promise we'll end on a more optimistic tone with some tips for how to ensure a positive sport experience for your youth athletes.

The Risk Factors

To start to understand youth sport we have to start with some of the factors that create potentially risky situations for youth in sport. The first one - and most obvious but often overlooked - is that youth athletes are young. Their age alone is a factor that leaves them at greater risk of abuse and maltreatment. Their lack of knowledge, experience, psychological maturity, and resulting inability to think critically, make informed decisions, and consent to the risks inherent in sport, leave them more vulnerable to possible exploitation (Farstead, 2007; Pinheiro, Pimenta, Resende, & Malcolm, 2012). Young athletes rely on adults including parents, coaches, sport administrators, doctors, and other professionals to protect them and preserve their rights while participating in sport. Other risk factors include the professionalization of sport and a focus on winning (Brower, 1979), real or perceived high stakes in competition and adult egos (Brower, 1979; Pinheiro et al., 2012), intensive specialized year-round training and competition (Anderson, Greisemer, Johnson, Martin, McLain, Rowland, & Small, 2000; Farstead, 2007; Schubring & Thiel, 2014), power imbalances in intensive coach-athlete relationships (Farstad, 2007; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Pinheiro et al., 2012), and a sport ethos that normalizes risk and abuse (Farstad, 2007; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Pinheiro et al., 2012; Schubring & Thiel, 2014; Stirling & Kerr, 2010).  Any of these factors can create unsafe situations for youth athletes. I also caution parents not to dismiss this with the thought that your child is not participating in an elite or competitive level of sport - many of these risk factors are becoming more prevalent even at lower levels of sport participation. If you have questions or want to know more about any of these factors I encourage you to take a look at some of the references listed at the bottom of this article or contact me to learn more.

Children and youth are at a greater risk for negative outcomes from competitive sport

The Potential Positive Outcomes

This is not to say that youth sport is bad; when it goes well researchers have found many benefits including improved physical health and growth as well as psychosocial and motor skills development (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2008; IOC Medical Commission, 2005; Russell & Limle, 2013; Strachan, Côté, & Deakin, 2011; Weber, 2009). In addition, parents continue to enroll their children hoping they will learn many life skills and values through sport; leadership, responsibility, discipline, confidence, and sportsmanship are among the most frequently referenced. While these can all be developed through sport, sport participation does not inherently guarantee their development, and, to make matters more complicated, there are many negative outcomes that can occur from sport participation in combination with the risk factors listed above.

The Potential Negative Outcomes

These negative outcomes can be direct or indirect and all take away from the potential benefits of sport participation for youth. Direct negative outcomes come in the form of relational maltreatment (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect) and denial of rights (Sterling and Kerr, 2010). While sexual abuse scandals often make national or international news, it is important to note that it is just one possible negative outcome. For example, neglect itself can be broken into four types: physical, educational, emotional, and social (Stirling & Kerr, 2010). Indirect negative outcomes often include long lasting, residual physical, emotional, and psychological problems such as chronic injuries, eating disorders, low self-esteem and self-worth, anxiety, depression, and restricted identity (Farstad, 2007; Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008; Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Gould, 2013; IOC Medical Commission, 2005; Weber, 2009). Other indirect negative outcomes include loss of motivation and enjoyment, which leads to burnout, dropout, and decreased sport participation in young adulthood (Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008; Russell & Limle, 2013).

Negative sport experiences can turn children away from sport for years to come

What You Can Do

If you're like me, you might see these outcomes and think, "My kid is never playing sports!" But that's a bit rash. I do still believe it is possible for children and youth to have incredible, life-changing, positive experiences through sport when it's done right. So, to finish, here are some things that you can do as a parent or adult involved in youth sport or with youth athletes to help reduce risk and increase the potential for positive youth development.

1. Be supportive and get involved

Go to practices and games and provide positive support regardless of the outcome, encourage but don't force participation, and volunteer as needed to ensure a positive sport environment. A lack of parental involvement or awareness leads to an increased risk of abuse from the unsupervised coach (Pinheiro et al., 2012)

2. Keep things in perspective

Less than 5% of elite youth athletes will ever earn a living through sport (Farstead, 2007) - keep the focus on fun and learning.

3. Leave the coaching to the coach

Kids need parents. Even if you are volunteering as a coach make sure you take the coach 'hat' off when you leave the field.

4. Preserve time for unstructured play alone and with friends or siblings

Let them play, explore, create, experiment, and make-believe without adults. And, sometimes,  join in and remember what it's like to be a kid!

Let them play!

5. Change it up - sport, coach, level of competition

Specialization in a single sport is discouraged before adolescence (Anderson et al., 2000; Gould, 2010). Let your child experience different types of sport and physical activity at different levels and with different coaches and instructors. They will be more likely to  learn new things with each new experience.

6. Educate yourself and be selective in your sport involvement

Increased knowledge and understanding leads to more informed decision making regarding children's participation in sport (Pinheiro et al., 2012). Get to know some sport science research and do your research on a sport organization before signing up. Do they have a Child Protection or Player Welfare Officer? What policies do they have in place to protect youth athletes (i.e. minimum age restrictions, limits on playing time...)? Do they follow the LTAD? Are they a positive and inclusive space? What are their organization's mission and values? What do other parents and players say about their experiences?

Take time to find the sport, team, coach, and organization that is right for your athlete to ensure a positive sport experience

7. Know your priorities

What do you want your child/athlete to get out of this experience? What does your child/athlete want to get out of this experience? Are these the same thing? What are the risks/costs of your child's participation compared to the benefits?

8. Know your responsibilities

The IOC Medical Commission (2005) suggested a list of responsibilities for parents and guardians including the development of a strong support system and the provision of a balanced lifestyle including proper nutrition, adequate sleep, academic development, psychological well-being, and opportunities for socialization. Children have rights to the highest attainable standard of health, to education, to rest and leisure, to play and activities appropriate to their age and development level, and to protection from performing hazardous work (Farstead, 2007). Any person responsible for the care of a child (parents, coaches, administrators) has a responsibility to protect that child from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect, maltreatment, and exploitation.

9. Work with a Mental Performance Consultant or other professional

My job is to be a non-judgemental third party and help athletes to improve not only their performance but also their overall well-being. MPCs and other professionals can provide support to athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to ensure that the athletes needs are being met and rights are not being violated.

What was your youth sport experience like? How about your kids'? Are you doing something to help keep sport as a positive experience for all? If you or someone you know is struggling from a negative experience in sport please contact me - I'd love to help turn that around.

Do you have a topic you'd like to read about? Send your ideas to jocelyn@balancedperformance.ca


Anderson, S. J., Greisemer, B. A., Johnson, M. D., Martin, T. J., McLain, L. G., Rowland, T. W., & Small, E. (2000). Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics106(1), 154-157.

Farstad, S. (2007) Protecting Children’s Rights in Sport: The Use of Minimum Age. Human Rights Law Commentary 3. Retrieved from: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/hrlc/documents/publications/hrlcommentary2007/childrensrightsinsport.pdf 

Fraser-Thomas, J., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2008). Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise9(5), 645-662.

Gervis, M., & Dunn, N. (2004). The emotional abuse of elite child athletes by their coaches. Child Abuse Review13(3), 215-223.

Gould, D. (2010). Early sport specialization: A psychological perspective. .Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance81(8), 33-37.

IOC Medical Commission (2005) ‘Statement on Training the Elite Child Athlete.’ Retrieved from: http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reports/EN/en_report_1016.pdf

Pinheiro, M. C., Pimenta, N., Resende, R., & Malcolm, D. (2012). Gymnastics and child abuse: an analysis of former international Portuguese female artistic gymnasts. Sport, Education and Society, 1-16.

Russell, W. D., & Limle, A. N. (2013). The relationship between youth sport specialization and involvement in sport and physical activity in young adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36(1), 82-98.

Schubring, A., & Thiel, A. (2014). Growth problems in youth elite sports. Social conditions, athletes’ experiences and sustainability consequences. Reflective Practice, 15(1), 78-91.

Stirling, A, & Kerr, G. (2010). Sport psychology consultants as agents of child protection. Journal of applied sport psychology, 22, 305-319.

Strachan, L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2011). A new view: Exploring positive youth development in elite sport contexts. Qualitative research in sport, exercise and health3(1), 9-32.

Weber, R. (2009). Protection of Children in Competitive Sport: Some Critical Questions for London 2012. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44(1), 55-69.

7 closed white doors in a wall

You don’t get to choose your choices


A few years ago my classmates and I got into a debate about the idea of choice. The question was, "Is it fair to say that if you want something you just have to choose to go and get it?" After a long and fairly intense discussion of the different perspectives involved we still couldn't quite say yes or no but we had definitely established that this was not simply a yes or no question. There were far too many factors to consider, and I was left feeling, as I often do in situations like this one, both frustrated with the lack of answer and with the demand for an answer in the first place. You see I grew up loving math and logic and the challenge of figuring something out and knowing that you had found the right answer. I still love the hard, objective, black and white, clear, direct, straightforward, and simple. However, I am continually drawn to the soft, subjective, gray, murky, indirect, complex, and puzzling. Frustrated as I may be, I am intrigued, and I am learning more and more that most matters fall into the second category, whether they indeed start there or are dragged there by context and circumstances.

To come back to our question, the answer seems like it should be an easy, simple, straightforward "yes": if you want something just make the choice and go and get it. You may have heard some motivational quotes, sayings, and videos like this one that seem to support this, including by Will Smith's character in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness. And, to an extent, this is true, and can be a helpful motivator for some people. We all have the same number of hours in the day and days in the year; we all get to make choices everyday that affect our future; we are all capable of far more than we may ever know and if we continue to make the right choices and prioritize those choices we can achieve great things.

Seems pretty straightforward right? But when you start to talk to people - when you start to look a little deeper at the context surrounding those choices, and the circumstances of people's lives - you realize that we all have different demands and commitments within those same hours and days; we all have different requirements for things like sleep and down time in order to continue to function in a healthy way; we all have different priorities in life; and we all have different circumstances and obstacles to overcome. It is these differences that make the answer to our question more likely a subjective, complex,  murky "yes…but".

padlocked chain against green wood panels
Life is also full of obstacles and barriers

In the days after our discussion, I happened upon a quote that seemed to help support and explain this "yes…but" answer. The quote says, "You don't get to choose your choices - you just get to make the ones you're given." In other words, if you want something AND YOU HAVE THE CHOICE, just make the choice and go get it. Now that's not to say that you can't make choices that will open up other choices and so on and so forth, but it's just not as simple as we sometimes make it out to be. There are always uncontrollables in life and sometimes those uncontrollables hijack our choices and derail our plans. Remember that the one choice you always have is how you will respond to a situation. You may not be able to make the choice you wanted to, but you can always make a choice to move forward in a positive direction from where you are. To be clear I am not advocating for making excuses or giving up on your dreams because things get hard. I am, however, advocating for self-care, compassion, understanding, and a healthy, realistic outlook.

The second really big caveat I'll add to our initial question is that just because you have the choice does NOT mean it is the right choice for you at the time. Too many people end up feeling guilty because they chose a different path or prioritized another area of life. Just because other people have made that choice, or think you could/should make that choice, does not inherently make it the right choice for you. Your values and priorities in life are your own - don't let anyone make you feel guilty for choosing your own path and pursuing your own goals.


1. You always have a choice - even if it is just your response.

2. You don't get to choose your choices, but you can make choices that will open up more choices in the future.

3. Don't ever feel guilty for making your own choice and prioritizing what is important to you - success looks different for different people.

Have you ever felt guilty for giving up on or not pursuing a goal? How did you move forward and through that guilt? What is the hardest decision you've ever made and what helped you make it? Share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with us in the comments or send me an email at jocelyn@balancedperformance.ca.