9 out of 10 children say “fun” is the main reason they participate in youth sports.
Now imagine if youth sport providers worked half as hard to understand the needs of kids, especially those who are left out or who opt out of sports. Organized competition can be scary for many children. We should ask them why and what should change. We should also look at minimizing attrition among girls, who drop out of sports at higher rates than boys. And figure out how can we systematically solicit and act on the diverse perspectives of kids who are living with disabilities, or who have chronic health conditions, or whose families have few resources or don’t speak English.
Fewer than one percent of sports sociology papers have examined youth sports through the eyes of children.(10) Most of what we know involves kids already in the game, and it suggests extrinsic rewards and “winning” mean far less to them than to adults. In a 2014 George Washington University study, 9 of 10 kids said “fun” is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, they offered up 81 reasons— and ranked “winning” at No. 48.(11) Young girls gave it the lowest ratings.
Children mostly want a venue to try their best. While they often want to know the score, and may even cry if they lose, most don’t obsess over results, sport psychologists say.(12) Ten minutes after the final whistle, kids have moved on; often it’s dad and mom who still want to talk about the game at dinner. The misalignment of adult and child priorities could play a role in the fact that 6 out of 10 kids say they quit sports because they “lost interest.”(13)
We need to ingrain the voice of children into the design of youth sports programs. We need to regularly survey kids at the community and even team levels, both pre- and post-season, and use the results to inform league policies and priorities. In New Mexico, The Notah Begay III Foundation has found such surveys valuable in introducing soccer to Native American children, for example. Additionally, kids need formal representation on decision- making bodies.
It’s Rule No. 1 in business: know your customer. Video games (and the technology industry more broadly) often get blamed for our kids’ sedentary habits, yet they provide much of what children want out of a sport experience, including: lots of action, freedom to experiment, competition without exclusion, social connection with friends as co-players, customization, and a measure of control over the activity— plus, no parents critiquing their every move. Simply put, the child is at the center of the video game experience, all made possible by research and feedback loops that seek input from its young customers.
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