How to Keep Sports Fun
(By guest contributor J.P. Nerbun)
I’ve lived my dreams.
I’ve won so many NBA championships that I have lost count.
I once scored 100 points in a game.
Another time, I even tore my ACL, kept playing, and carried my team to win the NCAA National Championship.
I was the first 8-year-old to play in the NBA.
I was even Michael Jordan.
Sometimes, I missed the game-winning shot, but I would bounce back in the next game!
Before I reached the age of 13,
I had accomplished more in my basketball career than nearly every player in the Hall of Fame put together.
My earliest memories as a child were of spending hours and hours in my backyard, not in deliberate practice, not even in pursuit of a dream, but in living a dream.
I lived my dreams every time I stepped out onto the blacktop in my backyard, even on the hundred-degree afternoons in South Carolina.
I lived whatever I could dream up.
If we were fortunate enough to catch a college or NBA game through the rusted antenna on top of our house, that just fueled those dreams.
I remember watching Michael Jordan dismantle the Suns, the Sonics, and the Jazz.
And after every game I watched, I would head straight into my backyard to dream.
And I would live out that dream on the blacktop.
But when I got to high school, something happened.
I stopped dreaming.
It all came to a halt when adults attempted to motivate me to work harder.
When they felt they needed to criticize my every mistake.
When they brushed off my dreams with lectures about the realities of life.
We Play to Have Fun
“You have to love a sport to play it well, and love grows out of enjoyment.”
Research shows that the number-one reason athletes play sports is for fun. You might think this would change in the higher levels, but it doesn’t. Fun is still the number-one reason Olympic Athletes play their sport.
My love for the game of basketball came from an experience many adults may share with me. But I am afraid that experience may not exist for most children in today’s sporting culture.
Around the time I reached high school, reality set in. I knew I needed to start to practice harder and longer. Some of my time playing basketball needed to be more intentional; it needed to be more deliberate practice. It is a good thing when we use our passion to help shape virtue and character in pursuit of a dream. We want sports to do just that!
So, I started to put in some hard hours of work. Plyometric jumping programs, workout plans, and hot, sweaty days in the YMCA gym. The hard work only fueled my passion and love for the sport.
But something in the sporting environment changed, and it would send me down a path that led me to not just hate my sport but hate myself.
A coach came into my life—the transactional kind. The kind that expresses his love by screaming, yelling, and tearing you down, so he can build you back up into a MAN. Except, I didn’t need to be broken down or motivated. I just needed my passion to be guided into working hard towards my dreams and goals. I needed to be told that my aspirations were honorable and good, and to pursue them with all my heart.
What’s Keeping Sports From Being Fun…
Sadly, today’s youth faces many issues that keep them from dreaming and falling in love with sports. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but here are some of the biggest obstacles to growing a passion for sports:
1. Technology: TV, phones, and video games are easy distractions from more beneficial activities like reading a book, throwing the ball around, playing with your action figures, or climbing a tree. We should do our best to cut these distractions out of our kids’ lives.
2. Fear: Maybe the world is getting more dangerous, with predators, faster cars, and taller trees, but we can’t let our fear of injury or something bad happening keep our children from experiencing life. I am not sure what exactly is a healthy balance, but I know that in most cases, we are letting our fear keep our kids from experiencing a full life.
3. Structured Competitive Sports: Kids playing at the park, on the playground, or at the gym without referees or coaches is dying. We all know this was where WE learned to compete! We didn’t need parents and coaches yelling or referees to organize the game for the game to be fun and competitive. In fact, all the pressures of referees, coaches, and parents can suck the fun out of it.
4. Adults Imposing Their Vision of Fun: “We play to win.” “Winning is fun.” I recently saw a lot of parents and coaches saying these things on Twitter when I brought up that we were losing sports participation to video games. Kids don’t play to win as much as they play to have fun—it’s ranked about 40th on the list in a lot of research—and often, they just want to win for the validation and praise adults give them when they do.
5. Obsession with College and Professional Sports: Not everyone can be a professional or collegiate athlete and not everyone should want to be one. But adults in many circles seem to be obsessed with the idea that every kid needs to train like an Olympic athlete. That there needs to be specialization, individualized training, and sacrifice so that they can live their dream… Ever consider that maybe it isn’t their dream but the adult’s dream?
We don’t need a massive overhaul of youth sports to start making positive change in the way we use sports. We can start by simplifying our post-game analysis in the car by saying those powerful six words,
“I Love to Watch You Play.”
And next weekend try this: maybe invite a couple other families over, unplug the TVs, turn off the phones, and get everyone in the backyard playing some “pick-up” soccer, basketball, football, or whatever!
Looking to Build a Better Culture?
My consulting services are customized programs tailored to fit your athletic department, club, or team’s unique context. I work with administrators, coaches, athletes, and parents to create a culture that develops mental toughness, leadership, and character.
Coaches, let me know if you are interested in my mentorship program, which has some spots opening in August. If you have any doubts about the value of the program, I have many current and former mentees who are willing to share their experience with you.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
You can also subscribe to my weekly newsletter at thriveonchallenge.com for articles, podcasts, and other tools to help build your culture.