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8U Q-and-A: What makes youth sports fun?

03/13/2018, 10:45am MDT
By Rich Hansen, USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager

Q: Why do you think youth sports participation has declined? Has hockey participation declined?

A: Like most things in life, the answer to why youth sports participation has declined in the United States is probably more complex than any single reason. But two factors that I believe contribute to declining participation are (1) pressure to perform at a young age and (2) burnout from over-exposure to a sport.

Here’s an excerpt from an article I read about what makes sports fun for children:

Amanda Visek of George Washington University surveyed children about why they played sports. Nine of 10 said, “because it was fun.” When asked what made sports “fun,” these were their top responses:

  • Trying your best.

  • When the coach treats a player with respect.

  • Getting playing time.

  • Playing well as a team.

  • Getting along with teammates.

  • Being active.

Much farther down the list was winning (48th), playing in tournaments (63rd), private training with specialized coaches (66th) and taking team pictures (81st). In a nutshell, kids want excitement, support, and positive interactions with their peers and the adults. Those things bring enjoyment.

What stands out here is that winning and playing in tournaments was far down the list of why kids play sports. Kids play to have fun. And that’s part of why American youth sports participation is declining – because too many of those sports have replaced the priority of fun with the pressure to perform, an over-emphasis on scoreboard outcomes, and over-exposure at young ages.

As for hockey, it’s one of the few youth sports that is on the rise and actually seeing increased participation. In fact, USA Hockey recently set a single-season record for 8U participation, and this is the third consecutive season of record-breaking 8U participation totals for USA Hockey.

In my opinion, I attribute hockey’s rise to a couple things. First, USA Hockey, with its strong core of staff and volunteers, is committed to growing the game at the grassroots level (introducing new players), and also keeping these young boys and girls in the game (retaining existing players) with initiatives like the American Development Model. Because of its age-appropriate, age-specific programming and the efficient skill development it provides, the ADM keeps kids engaged and having fun. It gives every child an opportunity to reach their full potential. The ADM also discourages early specialization, far-flung traveling, expensive tournaments and an over-emphasis on the final score at the youngest age levels. Instead, we invest heavily in helping our coaches and parents understand and implement the science-proven best practices for player development and keeping the game fun.

Another major contributor to hockey’s rising participation is the NHL and NHLPA, which have been instrumental in giving young athletes the opportunity to try hockey through numerous grow-the-game initiatives, many involving USA Hockey. The sport has grown in both traditional markets and in non-traditional markets, and I will not be surprised if we see a big rise in Las Vegas-area youth participation with the addition of the Golden Knights. This expansion and expanded excitement for hockey in new American markets is definitely contributing to hockey’s rise.

The author, Rich Hansen, played four seasons of NCAA hockey at Mercyhurst College, amassing 127 points before embarking on a six-season playing career in the professional hockey ranks.

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