Sunday, October 3, 2010

Don't Forget to Have Fun

When working with youth athletes, it is sometimes easy to get caught up in their techniques, skills, and overall physical talent.  There are times when we simply overlook their mental training, and just allowing them to have fun and enjoy their sport.  Take into consideration this young tennis athlete who has developed great physical potential, but he allows outside factors such as officials’ calls, opponents moves, and other distractions affect his play.  The emotional side of sports is very important in the development of young athletes.  It helps teach them how to deal with challenging situations and circumstances such as tougher competition, weather conditions, or when they are just having an off day physically.  Gill & Williams (2008) indicate that even slight physical changes, such as increased muscle tension, can interfere with coordination.  Therefore, focusing on how we can teach this athlete to relax and not get worked up will help his mental and physical game.
Forty-five percent of American youth, or 20 million children ages 6-18, participate in organized sports in non-school-sponsored events alone (Chambers, 1991). 
Youth sport participation has grown tremendously over the years, and we need to remind ourselves why it is the youth of today play sports in the first place.  Gill, Gross, and Huddleston (1983) and Gould, Feltz, and Weiss (1985) surveyed over 1,500 youths on participation motivation. Their data showed that the primary reasons for adolescent athletic involvement are: (1) fun, (2) skill development, (3) excitement and personal challenge, (4) achievement and status, (5) fitness, (6) energy or tension release, and (7) friendship.  Of these motivation characteristics, I believe incorporating fun, excitement and personal challenge, and skill development are the main ones to focus on at this camp.  Therefore, when working with our youth tennis athlete, we need to try and incorporate these characteristics in his practices so he can carry them over into competition.
            In an extensive youth sport study in Michigan, Sapp and Haubenstricker (1978) reported that "having fun" was the reason youth gave most frequently for participating in sports.  We need to make sure we are not over stressing skill development in place of enjoyment for the game of tennis.  Skill development is of course very important, but we should try and give the athlete fun, game like drills to enhance his performance as well as allow him to enjoy what he is doing.  Scanlan and Passer (1978) found that fun was the most potent predictor of the amount of postgame anxiety experienced by youth participants.  They showed that children who had more fun were less anxious after the game.  This relationship was true for both winners and losers.
            Now of course we want our young tennis athlete to be successful, so we will also incorporate personal challenges into his practices and competitions.  It is not always about winning, especially at this level, but we still want to keep things competitive.  We know his skill level and need to challenge him both mentally and physically to help him develop as an athlete.  Setting mini-goals such as serving percentage and winning consecutive points can help him see successes even if he is not “winning” the match.  We also need to incorporate positive self-talk in order to help the athlete work through challenging situations on the court.  Helping athletes shift their focus from negative thoughts to specific actions might well enhance performance (Gill & Williams, 2008).  So in practices, we should purposely put the athlete in challenging conditions so he can practice working through these situations.  Some examples would be loud crowd noise, an annoying opponent, and inconsistent line judges or officials.  “Teaching emotional control in exercise or youth programs can not only enhance the activity experience but also build emotional-control skills for life enhancement” (Gill & Williams, p.191).
            In conclusion I believe there are many little things we can incorporate into training youth athletes today.  It is easy to get caught up in competitions and games both for the athlete and the coach.  So it is important to incorporate game play and fun into practices while still working on skill development.  It is also very important to incorporate mental training such as self-talk in order to practice challenging situations the athlete may face.  We need to make sure we as coaches and trainers are providing an enjoyable environment for our youth athletes.  Sports can have a tremendous impact on a child’s life, and how we teach and develop their physical and mental skills is going to affect how they develop as a person.  It the situation with our youth tennis athlete; he will leave camp hopefully with some sort of self-satisfaction and accomplishment. Ideally he will take with them a fulfillment of his motives to participate, a feeling of fun and excitement for tennis, less anxiety and stress, and higher overall self-esteem.

Chambers, S. (1991). Factors affecting elementary school students' participation in sports. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 413-419.

Gill, D.L., & Williams, L. (2008). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise (3rd Ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Gill, D. L., Gross, J. B., & Huddleston, S. (1983). Participation motivation in youth sport. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 14, 1-14.

Gould, D., Feltz, D., & Weiss, M. (1985). Motives for participating in competitive youth swimming. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 16, 126-140.

Sapp, M., & Haubenstricker, J. (1978). Motivation for joining and reasons for not continuing in youth sports programs in Michigan. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, Kansas City, MO.

Scanlan, T. K., & Passer, M. W. (1978). Factors related to competitive stress among male youth sport participants. Medicine and Science in Sports, 10, 103-108.


  1. I like the focus you took with this issue and the progression from generalizing for a population down to specifying for the particular tennis player. It’s good to remind people what youth sports are supposed to be about: having fun. It’s interesting to see that the research supports the idea that having fun is what children really want out of sports and that fun is the best way to ensure that children aren’t anxious even after a loss. The only point on which I might disagree with you is the need to put the child in a challenging situation. I think it might suffice to talk through those situations with perhaps a little role playing to avoid unnecessarily stressing out the child.

  2. This is a very well written review. I like the path you took with showing just how important "free play" is in childhood sport. Incorporating the research of childhood response to questioning about why they place is great. Very interesting to see that even a child just wants to have fun and not be the next best thing, at least from reports. Good intervention points for the tennis athlete, teaching the athlete to have fun is the most important thing. You do mention goal setting (serving %, etc.) but I do believe that for improvement to occur, the child does have to have specific situations placed before them, that will put them into a spot of difficulty. In order to win, you must put in not only the time but quality work. But yes, having the child become burnout is not the path to take. Very well written and thoughtful.