What happened to fun? I’m not talking about its absence in the Pandemic Era. More about its standing in the hierarchy of our lives. And more specifically, in the lives of our kids.
As adults, freighted with obligations and responsibilities – work, relationships and parenting, to name a few – we often wish that our lives could sizzle with unbridled joy. That’s what well-done French fries, brilliantly-written TV shows, and lost weekends in Vegas are for. Deep down, though, we understand that fun is not the point of this journey. Still, with a nod to Brian Wilson, “Wouldn’t it be nice . . .”
Looking through our kids’ eyes, fun is the promise of each new morning. It’s the surprise of a puppy licking their nose, the delight in a visit from grandma and grandpa, and the excitement of tearing into birthday presents and leaving a heap of wrapping paper on the floor. It’s the metric by which every activity is measured. It’s the cause AND the effect. In Kidland, if it’s not fun, it’s not happening.
And yet, in the universe of youth sports, beyond entry level play and recreational programs, which celebrate fun’s preeminence, the more competitive outlets of club and travel teams bury it beneath development, fulfilling potential, college recruitment and other parent-pleasing buzzwords. If even considered, it’s either a “given,” unworthy of mention, the taken-for-granted by-product of play. Or it’s condescendingly consigned to lesser programs. “If fun is what you’re looking for, there’s always _____ (sneer as you fill in the blank.)”
We’re decades beyond the days of after-school no-stakes pick-up games, and today every kid activity is rigidly structured and stratified, but the denigration of fun displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is and why it’s important.
The dictionary doesn’t help, defining fun as “enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure.” Hardly a rollicking endorsement of its fulsome features. On the metabolic level, fun teases the brain into releasing dopamine and prompts the pituitary to pump out endorphins. The actual science that turns an over-the-shoulder catch into an ear-to-ear grin or a sprint into the end zone is well-documented, even if difficult to grasp for the more Humanities-inclined.
Yet it takes no Einstein to understand this:
Fun feels good. And when we’re having it, we don’t want it to end. It possesses a mystical ability to melt time and space, and leave behind the ache for more and the hope that we’ll be back for another round soon.
Fun also functions as a success multiplier. Accessed alone, through reading, exercising, painting, playing music, or any of a multitude of pastimes, fun can be satisfying, even profound. But when experienced with others, the thrill can have a half-life of forever. Sink a three on your driveway, and throw up your hands in triumph! Yes! Get open in the corner and have your teammates find you for that same shot? YES!!!
So whose brilliant idea was it to banish fun from the athletic equation?
There’s plenty of discredit to go around.
Parents understandably want the best for their kids. A life of meaning, filled with love, health, joy, enough achievement to sustain it all, and maybe a beach house or a small chalet with ski-in ski-out access. Nothing too fancy. “As long as my child is happy,” they declare. Many, though, upon witnessing the flickering of hand-eye coordination, suddenly forswear their oath and leap aboard the bullet train of soaring expectations and vicarious gratification.
Once primed, parents are susceptible to the pitches of programs and coaches promising a future of competitive growth and glory, open doors and opportunities, and recruiting visits and full rides, all cloaked in a gravitas that is nearly irresistible. Unfortunately, the fine print neglects to advertise the NCAA-published statistics that fewer than 7% of high school athletes play their sport in college and shy of 2% receive scholarships for their efforts. The number of athletes that continue into professional careers, a fraction of one percent, is practically microscopic.
If, as a condition of the bounty clubs do promote, fun has to be sacrificed before the more pressing concerns of commitment, hard work, and four practices a week, well, that’s what holidays and vacations are for. Oh wait, we’ll be attending tournaments during those dates? Was that in the enrollment contract?
Probably, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Once accepted into this formerly-elite, now primarily financially-driven society, families are roiled by a constant swirl of anxiety. “Your kid needs to work harder a) for more playing time; b) to play his/her desired position; c) to get onto a more competitive team; d) to jump to a higher level club. It doesn’t stop.
Until it does.
A few weeks ago, Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Ty Buttrey, 28, suddenly announced his retirement. He’d been a mainstay reliever on the Angels’ staff for the past three seasons, but one day he decided he was done, even if it meant walking away from a six-figure salary. “I couldn’t help but notice my love and passion for this game started to diminish.” He spoke about having played the game to show others that he could, a lament voiced by many overburdened, emotionally-exhausted athletes. It was no longer about what made Buttrey happy. Long gone was the fun.
What the grind-for-glory club programs overlook is that subtracting fun from the equation incurs an incalculable loss. Maybe it’s not apparent right away, or in the first year or even for a few years. But absent the fun, all that’s left is the work, setting the stage for injury, frustration, resentment and burnout. A report issued by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play states that, “the average child today spends less than three years playing a sport, quitting by age 11, most often because the sport just isn’t fun.” Even more frightening, according to Michael Mosciano of the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters Sports Medicine group, seventy-five percent of kids quit playing sports by the time they’re 13.
For the super-charged, highly-motivated, long term-goal-oriented kid, the work is satisfaction enough. But for the majority of the Kidland population, if it’s not fun, it’s going to grow old, later if not sooner.
So what as parents can we do?
Ask the question – “why is my kid playing sports?” If the answer is any variation of, “my idea,” and your kid is nine or older, then it’s time to reassess. Is she that uber-athlete hell-bent on a higher level career? Or is he someone who enjoys the game but loves running around with his friends more?
All three of my kids played club soccer. Partly for the competition but mostly as a vehicle for connecting with their friends and making new ones. As they got older, and their interests and mobility (i.e. driving) increased, their tolerance for drills and conditioning waned. Two hung up their cleats. My third remained, savoring a coach who possessed the wisdom and perspective to see his players for who they were: a group of fun-loving kids who loved playing with their friends. That they were talented was a bonus. That they thrived in each other’s company was the point.
Parents should encourage their kids to play multiple sports, which will demonstrably make them better at their primary one by teaching complementary skills, preventing overuse injuries and stoking a wider range of interests. When my eldest began playing lacrosse, his soccer noticeably improved.
Parents should also acknowledge, as much as it may sting, that a career in sports is not in their kid’s cards. I often counsel anxious parents that their kid has a better chance of owning a professional team than of playing on one. The motivated parent would be well-advised to forego the private kicking/hitting/shooting lessons in favor of business and computer classes. Kidding. Sort of. With shoe contracts and commercial endorsements out of the picture, dialing back the pressure to perform while fostering the freedom to have fun could work wonders on the field and brighten the mood at home, on both sides of the breakfast table.
All of this is easy to say but much harder to finesse into a game plan. So just look at it this way —
Sports are games. Games are played. Play is fun.
You really don’t need much more than that.