Being a Good Sport Ranks as the Top “Fun” Factor in Study of Youth Sports

If you think winning is one of the key determinants that makes organized sports fun for kids think again: Winning along with other mental bonuses ranked near the bottom of 81 determinants of fun, each of which falls into one of 11 big fun factors. Despite the common belief that winning is all important when it comes to the “fun” factor, very little research had been done to actually identify and quantify what goes into this elusive concept—until now.

In a first of a kind study, Amanda J. Visek, PhD, Associate Professor of Exercise Science in the Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at The George Washington University and her research team used a method called concept mapping in order to map “fun” in youth sport.

(LISTEN: Dr. Visek's interview with KCBS in San Francisco about the study.)

First, they asked 142 soccer players, 37 coaches and 57 parents to identify all of the things that make playing sports fun for kids. When all of their ideas were pooled and synthesized, 81 specific determinants of fun were identified. Next, the study participants were asked to sort the 81 fun-determinants in a way that made sense to them and then finally to rate the determinants on their importance, frequency, and feasibility.

 The study showed that:

  • There are four fundamental tenets to creating fun – that is, there are internal, external, social, and contextual factors that make up the complete fun experience for kids.
  • The 11 fun factors lie within the fundamental tenets and include Being a good sport, Trying hard, Positive coaching, Learning and improving, Game time support, Games, Practices, Team friendships, Mental bonuses, Team rituals, and Swag.
  • The 11 fun factors are each defined by the various 81 fun-determinants – specific, actionable behaviors that foster fun.
  • Among the 11 fun factors, Being a good sport, Trying hard, and Positive coaching were the most important when it comes to fun;  together, these three factors were coined the “youth sport ethos” – a collection of 28 fun-determinants that set the standard for promoting a culture of fun.

“When the FUN MAPS are viewed three-dimensionally, the youth sport ethos becomes very apparent. Most remarkably, Being a good sport, Trying hard, and Positive coaching came in as the top three most important factors to having fun,” says Visek. “At the same time, Swag—such as having a cool uniform or the latest sports gear—were rated as the least important determinants of fun.”

(READ Hoai-Tran Bui's USA TODAY article related to the FUN MAPS)

The full results of this innovative study appeared July 10 online in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health. All of the study participants were involved in organized youth soccer programs in the larger Washington, D.C. metropolitan area; however, over 75 percent of the kids that participated in the study also played sports other than just soccer. “It was important to us, particularly at the brainstorming stage of the study when the participants generated their ideas of all of the things that make playing sports fun that they identified as many things as they could within the entire scope of their youth sport experiences. In the end, the FUN MAPS essentially provide youth sport with a road map to fun,” says Visek.

The results of this study are important and timely given that the number one reason kids drop out of organized sport is because it is not fun anymore. In fact, about 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by the time they reach middle school—a statistic that worries public health officials because it is thought to contribute to the rising prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity in the United States.

(WATCH WRC-TV's coverage of the FUN MAPS study)

This study helps clarify what really matters when it comes to having a good time playing the game, and can help coaches and leagues inject more fun into the overall sport experience in order to keep kids playing. “Coachesparents, and youth sport administration should take the findings into account when organizing and running sports leagues for kids,” says Heather Manning, a Research Associate that has worked closely with Visek over the last year analyzing the study’s findings.

An estimated 30 million kids in the United States participate in organized sports through high school and public health researchers hope to discover elements that keep them in it for the long haul.

Published Media Aired Coverage on TV/Radio
USA Today, “Fun — not winning — essential to keep kids in sports,” by Hoai-Tran Bui. CBS Radio
Science Codex WCBS Radio New York
Human Kinetics KCBS San Francisco
Spiegel (Germany) WBAL Baltimore

“Keeping kids involved in sports in childhood and throughout their adolescence would be a significant public health breakthrough. The FUN MAPS can help do that. As a public health practice, sport participation can be a major source of physical activity and as such offers the well documented benefits of regular exercise. This is particularly important for children and adolescents,” says Visek. “Moreover, the longer we can keep them participating in sport, the greater likelihood we have of helping them establish a habit of regular physical activity for the rest of their lives.”

The study, “The Fun Integration Theory: Towards Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation,” was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of Health. The research was done in partnership with DC Stoddert Soccer other DC-area sports leagues.


About Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University:

Established in July 1997 as the School of Public Health and Health Services, Milken Institute School of Public Health is the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Today, nearly 1,400 students from almost every U.S. state and more than 43 countries pursue undergraduate, graduate and doctoral-level degrees in public health. The school also offers an online Master of Public Health, MPH@GW, and an online Executive Master of Health Administration, MHA@GW, which allow students to pursue their degree from anywhere in the world.