Updated: Dec 30, 2020
“The moment you stop having fun, that’s when everything gets hard, you start getting burnt out…when you’re having fun, you’re winning, regardless if you win or lose. When you’re having fun, you’re winning."
- King Mo
The phrase “Just go out there and have fun” is a common phrase that coaches tell their athletes. Take a moment to think about what makes sports fun for you? Next, think about or ask a coach, teammate, or parent, what makes/made sports fun for them?
Chances are, you will all have different definitions of what makes sports fun. Amanda Visek, a sport scientist, lists the following as some of the top reasons why youth and high school athletes find sports fun: learning new skills, friendships, receiving compliments, earning the respect of coaches and peers, learning from mistakes, working together, application of learned skills, and supporting others. Because everyone can have a different definition of fun, it’s up to the coach to create an environment that allows athletes to cultivate their fun in sport.
Coaching tips for creating an environment of fun that includes effort, handwork, dedication, passion, and laughter:
1. Create an environment of care and support. This includes allowing athletes to make mistakes and to challenging them to make mistakes. Meaning, when they do make a technical or tactical mistake don’t yell at them or stop the drill to address the problem.
Instead, take notice of whether the athlete was giving 100% focus and effort. Then, identify what they are doing well. If your athletes are to grow and learn, you (as a coach) need to focus on what they are doing well and provide feedback on how to improve. The worst feedback is when a coach just says “Try harder,” “Just do it right next time,” or “Don’t screw it up again”; or when a coach just focuses on what the athletes are doing wrong.
2. Allow athletes to contribute to the culture and the expectations of the team. If your athletes are able to create goals, expectations, and contribute to the culture, they will be more invested in the team.
If you use courage and accountability as core values, you can define courage as allowing coaches and athletes to make mistakes; and you can define personal accountability as a means to own mistakes, lack of effort, and/or focus. Then, ask for your athletes to provide their input to further define these core values.
You can give them ownership by allowing them to choose some of the drills in practice, create the music for practices and warm-ups at home games, manage certain parts of the warm up before games, and to create and facilitate the end of season traditions.
3. Create a culture of encouragement, confidence, and success by breaking things down into smaller chunks. This can be done in three ways:
a. Differentiate the seasons: the off-season, preseason, 1st half of the regular season, 2nd half of the regular season, and the postseason. Then, create goals and expectations for each of those seasons.
b. Set weekly and daily goals and expectations for each practice and competition.
c. Athletes love to compete, so create games and competitions in practice. Pete Carroll, NFL Coach, shares his thoughts on creating a competitive environment in practice, “We would compete to find new ways to raise the level of competition in practice each day. Whether it was through entertainment, practical jokes, or straight up competition, the program I would lead would always be in a relentless pursuit of a competitive edge,” and “We as coaches always critique effort first…(we focus our comments on) what we want to see, the desired outcome…and the next thing they can do right.”
Coach Carroll describes competition as an opportunity to “strive for what you want, not beat the other guy down…it’s about appreciating your teammate…pushing them…making them work really hard…and making it fun to compete.”
d. Reward the winners in practice drills. Instead of penalizing the losers with pushups, reward the winners of each drill by allow them to pick their reward, like make a rule for the next round or to pick what they will do to transition to the next drill like pick up the cones.
These things will allow athletes to see the process and progress the team is making throughout the season vs just focusing on wins and losses and the long-term goal. In the end, it’s easier to acknowledge and celebrate the teams progress, effort, dedication, and passion when you break things down into smaller chunks.
4. Identify the skill level of your team and try to schedule games that match your team’s skill level. This applies mainly to the college, high school, and youth coaches. Passion, drive, and motivation are cultivated when teams are able to compete with opponents that match their skill level. When your team or athletes face an opponent whose skills and abilities are vastly better or worse, it’s a lose-lose situation because there is a lack of challenge which results in a lack of motivation. If there is a mismatch, be it on the winning or losing side, the outcome doesn’t matter as much because the athlete(s) / team knows it wasn’t a challenge.
As coaches, understand your teams level of experience and schedule games against opponents that match their experience level. Evenly balanced competition or competing with teams that have a slight edge will push athletes/teams to work hard and preserver. If they know they have a fighting chance, they will work hard, relish the moment, enjoy a successful outcome, and be more determined to improve when they lose.
5. Stay on schedule at practice. Ever wonder why athletes ask for the time, or how much time is left in practice? As a coach, I used to get annoyed when an athlete would ask for the time. I realized that it’s important for athletes to know the schedule so that they know when practice starts and ends. So post a schedule or review it each day.
When athletes know how much time there is in practice and how much time each drill will take, they will likely focus and work harder because they know how much time they have in each drill to put forth their best effort and to focus on the task at hand. Think about it, are you going to work has hard as you can if you know you have 15 minutes for a specific drill, or if you have no idea when the drill will end? Lastly, a schedule gives an athlete a sense of control and personal accountability to own that moment / each chunk of practice.
6. Understand each athlete as a person. Learn what motivates them and what doesn’t, and most of all build relationships with them as people and not just as athletes who need to perform. If you do this, you will better understand how to best prepare each athlete to perform their best, and how to best support them when they are struggling.
7. Have a sense of humor. It doesn’t have to be all business, all the time. It’s good to lighten the mood, ease tension, and remind athletes that what they are doing isn’t life or death.
8. Infuse music to create a rhythm, energy, and to minimize distractions. Music can set the tone for practices and competitions. Whether you need to get pumped up before practice or to relax before games, music can set the tone and energy level.
It can also be a way to focus athletes as well. In practice music can be a distraction that forces them to focus. It can simulate distractions like crowd noise in a game. Therefore, it’s a great way to get your players to focus and to learn to filter out the noise.
In the end, if your athletes feel supported and respected by you (as a coach), they will find pleasure and pride by demonstrating their talents and performing their best. As a team, athletes will be motivated to work hard, to be passionate, and enjoy the experience when they are encouraged to support each other, to build friendships, and to interact in a positive manner on and off the field. Ultimately, if you aren’t having fun as a coach, your athletes probably aren’t either.