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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & health, 12(3), 424-33.