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What Drives 6U/8U Players to Compete

03/08/2021, 1:00pm MST
By Michael Rand

If we want to know what makes sports fun for kids, let’s ask the experts: kids.

It’s not that adults don’t mean well, but considering most of the adults in charge haven’t been kids for decades, it’s worth asking the kids directly.

Thankfully someone decided to ask kids what makes sports fun and study what they said. Heather Mannix, USA Hockey’s manager of female hockey for the American Development Model, spent the last six years working on a federally funded project that aimed to find out what exactly makes sports fun for kids.

The answers might surprise you – but then again, you’re probably an adult.

Top Concepts Same for All Ages

The age group Mannix was specifically asked about for the purposes of this article was 8U, but one of the most interesting findings of the study – which looked at kids as young as 8 and teens as old as 19 – was that the main answers were essentially the same across all age groups.

“Does it look a little different depending on age? Absolutely, but the underlying concepts are the same,” Mannix said. “There were 11 concepts and the top three are trying hard, having positive team dynamics and receiving positive coaching.”

Wait. Trying hard is … fun?

“People don’t associate trying hard with fun. They think of development and competing as mutually exclusive from fun,” Mannix said. “You hear people saying, ‘I want you to try hard but have fun,’ but when you do that you separate the two. What the kids tell us is that they are very much intertwined.”

What ‘Trying Hard’ Looks Like

So how does trying hard translate to fun? A lot of it has to do with how coaches construct drills.

“We often see when we go to rinks kids all standing in a line in the corner, because they have to work on skating, stops and starts, then go to a dot, another dot, stop,” Mannix said. “If you watch the effort, it’s not really great; they’re just doing what the coach told them to do. They don’t have to think or read and react. Coaches say skate harder, skate harder, keep your head up, but we don’t construct the environment to force them to keep their head up or try hard.”

That’s where the beauty of things like small-area games comes into play.

“Even at 8U, you need to put that level of competition in there. There are a ton of resources with small-area games, but the reason why those are fun is because they typically or are more game-like,” Mannix said. “They’re learning the skills in a game-like competitive -- and therefore fun -- environment.”

Creating a Fun and Competitive Environment

Another way kids have fun playing sports: they get better.

“There’s a feedback loop when you have the skills and abilities to perform an action, and you have that competence, that gives confidence,” Mannix said. “Then you’re more motivated to participate, which leads to more skill, which leads to more confidence.”

Those improvements often come from a practice atmosphere that is competitive and challenging while offering room to make mistakes – and to receive positive constructive feedback from coaches.

“One thing kids brought up as fun is that they want clear and consistent communication and coaches that allow mistakes while staying positive,” Mannix said. “How do I create a fun and competitive environment? I’m drilling into my kids that I want them to fail here on the practice rink – we’re going to make this as real as possible, those skills they are actually learning will translate to the game.”

That means a lot of puck touches for 8U players in practice. It means making things as game-like as possible to keep things fun and engaging.

“You look at how they’re running a breakout and it’s a five-on-zero breakout. That makes us all feel good as coaches – they’re making tape-to-tape passes and getting out of the zone,” Mannix said. “But when does that ever happen in a game. We can’t expect kids to be successful at something we’re not adequately preparing them for success.”

Fun Is a Key to Development

Again, a reminder: don’t ask adults what kids think is fun.

“As adults, we associate having fun with goofing off or not being on task, not paying attention, over in the corner messing around and fighting with each other,” Mannix said. “We think it detracts from development.”

However, it’s the opposite that is true. Mannix cites a study from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee that looked at several decades of elite athletes.

Guess what the most important motivator was for top athletes to keep going with a sport at the highest level?

“Fun,” Mannix said. “They’re telling us that it has to be fun to put in that level of effort.”

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Tag(s): ADM Features