Editor’s note: This post was updated on September 15, 2021.
Sixty-seven percent of parents find youth sports too serious.
That telling statistic is how a Tim Hortons television advertisement begins. The ad shows hockey superstars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon turning to the “real experts” on kids’ sports—the kids themselves—to ask them what would make hockey more fun.
“Puppies!” says one kid. “Pinata!” says another. And my favourite: “Farting goalie pads!” The ad then shows what happens when these ideas are implemented. And yes, the puppies are adorable. Take a minute and watch it:
I love the ad for two reasons:
First, it shares with a wide audience the key message that we must make youth sports fun for kids.
Second, it suggests that the best way to do so is to ask kids what they want. Who can argue with that? After all, this is supposed to be their game, not ours.
Of course, it’s impossible to integrate puppies into hockey or to suspend giant donut-shaped pinatas above the ice as they do in the ad, but it gets us thinking about practical ways to make sports fun for kids. I’m going to suggest that one of those ways is to observe what happens when they spontaneously play a game and see how they act when there’s no parent intervention.
How kids play and compete
That’s what I did recently. I was at one of those multi-ice-surface complexes where there’s open space in between the rinks. I watched as a group of six kids around seven to nine years old took over the space and initiated a soccer game with a Nerf foam ball.
First, the kids divided the group into two teams, moved chairs to act as goals, and started a game. They played for about five minutes and a few goals were scored. Finally, one boy yelled, “That’s 5 to 1—we win!” Then the entire winning team cheered. The first game was over.
Meanwhile, the losing team seemed somewhat dejected. “I hate to lose!” said one girl, but the smile on her face made it clear it wasn’t an earth-shattering moment for her. She then said, “Let’s make different teams.” Thirty seconds later, new teams were in place and a new game was underway.
What it means to play and compete for kids
As parents, coaches, and organizers, we are the gatekeepers of our kids’ activities and sports. This is a big responsibility. As we organize, regulate, and manage our kids’ activities and sports, it’s critical to look at how kids play and compete as it gives us some insights on why they play and compete.
From this perspective, here are a few lessons I took away from observing the Nerf soccer game:
1. Kids love to play more than they like to win
There are some kids who don’t like competitive sports, but most kids who choose to play competitive sports actually enjoy competing… as long as winning doesn’t take over playing.
There’s no doubt that those kids I watched did everything they could to win, but winning was not the reason they assembled and organized the game in the first place. They did so to play. Winning the game was the driver to play with energy and exuberance, but it was playing that they really, really enjoyed.
2. Kids have more fun when the game (and competition) is fair
Again, “winning the game” was the goal that motivated both teams to play with full energy, but for these kids, winning didn’t matter if it wasn’t fun. And one team winning five goals to one wasn’t fun for anyone. That’s why they didn’t hesitate to make the teams more even. And it’s why they went through the exercise a few times until they got it right.
I believe that these kids did so because it’s a lot more fun when games are close and the outcome is uncertain. When everyone involved knows they have a fair chance of winning, everybody wins.
3. Kids don’t dwell on winning and losing
I watched these kids play for about 15 minutes. They must have played six or seven games in that time. With each and every game, I observed the same behaviours: the winning team cheered and the losing team looked dejected—for about five seconds—and then they played another game.
There was no dwelling on the emotion of winning or losing. When a parent said, “Next goal wins, and then game over,” the kids played with even more energy. And when someone scored that final goal, the game was over and the kids moved on to something else. No winners, no losers, just happy kids.
It’s about meaningful competition
Studies and guidelines paint a similar picture to what I observed: Winning at all costs is never the top priority for kids to play sports and competition has to remain meaningful for it to be a worthwhile endeavour.
Youth sports can easily become too serious when it’s driven by parents’ hopes and desires rather than kids’ fun. Some coaches in sports like hockey and soccer are trying to swing the pendulum back to what’s truly enjoyable for kids.
But beyond all of these adult-driven attempts to make kids sports fun again, I suggest that we gatekeepers take a second and think about the wisdom that Tim Hortons has shared with us: that youth sport is organized for the benefit of kids—no more, no less.