Fostering The Fun Factor The Key To Success

All those early morning practices, late night workouts and back-to-back road trips – it’s so easy to forget why our kids started playing the game to begin with: it’s fun.

 “Never underestimate the power of the “Fun Factor,” says Heather Mannix, USA Hockey’s ADM regional manager of female hockey. 

And Mannix should know. She’s done the research to counter the prevailing wisdom young athletes must be totally committed and super serious at earlier ages.

“Children cite fun as the primary reason for participation in organized sport and its absence as the number one reason for youth sport attrition,” she says. 

I’ve seen fun integration succeed with both my son and daughter playing hockey. It comes in different forms and may be better deployed at different times; but even now as a college hockey player, my daughter and her teammates’ best memories come from just having fun on the ice.

But how can athletic development be fun?

“We have to change the mindset that if you’re having fun, you’re probably not working hard or developing, or if you’re working hard and developing, you’re probably not having fun,” says Mannix, who points out when an environment is constructed effectively, kids are playing hard, working hard, and having fun all at the same time. 

Mannix encourages coaches to make challenges on and off the ice fun and exciting. That way, athletes improve without thinking of it as a chore. 

That’s what happened with our team one season. Just when practices seemed to be getting stale for our 12U team, the coach emerged from the locker room in a hooped clown suit, bright red nose included. The kids laughing hysterically, but coach kept a stoic demeanor throughout practice, insisting he didn’t know what was so funny. It was a simple, silly gesture but the pace around practice picked up and the whole mood shifted. It motivated them. 

Research also shows skill is most transferable when it is developed in game-like situations. What kid doesn’t love to play games? So, use it to your advantage.

“If coaches can learn how to coach games within a game, now all the sudden, a generic 3 v 3 cross ice game turns into any goal scored, counts as one point,” Mannix says. “Meanwhile, any time a defensive player gets intentional stick on-puck, that team gets a point. Just like that, we’ve created a game within a game where we are focusing on defensive tactics of stick-on-puck, while they still must play with a game environment.”

Being creative as a coach can pay dividends. Lessons, such as time management and responsibility, can also be turned into a competition or point system.

“Putting incentive on it can make it fun and less stressful,” says Mannix, who shares an example – giving stickers to players who show up on time, and after 15 stickers they can win a prize. The education occurs without the stress that comes from traditional rules. 

Mannix also reminds parents not to discount your role too.

“Patience and confidence in the process is the best help a parent can give to the coaches AND their players,” she says. 

Whether you come from the coaching school of Vince Lombardi or Ted Lasso, you’ll see that they never lose sight of having fun. 

“Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate,” the great Lombardi once said.

We can win, too, by helping our kids find the right mindset and never lose sight of the joy of playing the game.



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