What does “Fun” Mean?

“When Baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.” – Joe DiMaggio

Every morning, I scroll through my Google Alerts; and there are two themes that are bound to show up: head injuries in youth sports and “kids need to have fun”.  It seems that in all corners of the country, people are writing about, and discussing these two issues.  However, there is a glaring difference between the content of each.  When you read through the articles on head injuries, solutions are provided.  Better headwear, rules changes, greater medical oversight, etc.  But, there are no solutions offered in the articles related to “Fun”.  No one says, “this is what we need to do.”  In fact, no one really defines what “Fun” is.  Is fun allowing kids to playing in the dirt during a game?  Is fun allowing kids to horse around on the bench?  WHAT IS FUN?

Back in January of this year I wrote about the topic of fun.  What precipitated that post were studies I read on why kids are quitting sports.  Citing a past study from ESPN, “Fun”, or lack thereof, is the #1 reason why kids quit.  And this usually happens around the age of 13.  But again, there were no solutions offered on how we can bring fun to the game, and reduce the growing rate of “baseball drop-outs”.  In that post, I stated what I believe fun to be: “Fun IS getting better at what you do.”  Nine months later, I feel its time to circle back to this topic.

The last week in October, in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, usually means colder weather setting in; leaves falling; and everyone settling in for the holidays.  It also means that many kids who have been playing baseball over the course of the last 8 months will be putting their bats and gloves away for the next few months as the Winter cold sets in.  And it’s during this time that I think to myself: I wonder how many kids will be back on the baseball field next Spring.  And how many will decide to permanently hang up their cleats.

If a kid that I coach decides to quit playing, I do take it personally.  Is there something I could have done to make the game a better experience for them?  What could I have done differently so that this kid would not have quit?  Now, I also realize that every kid that plays the game will one day decide to walk away from the game.  But, my hope is that the decision comes later in their lives.  Why?  Because like so many of us out there, we believe the game can teach us so many valuable life lessons.  When kids do decide to walk away from the game, my only hope is that they pick up something else.  Maybe they’d rather try another sport.  Or, they want to take up a hobby.  Or, they want to join a club.  I just don’t want them to quit and do NOTHING.

So, let’s jump back to the idea of fun.  I do agree with the various studies that kids will quit if they’re not having fun.  Do kids do anything that they hate, dislike, etc?  And if they do, then it’s probably because they have to because it was a commitment they made or a job they needed to take.  For adults, fun isn’t really an option.  We have responsibilities.  In fact, 70% of American workers dislike their jobs (2014 Gallup Poll).  These individuals can’t quit.  Their families depend on them.

With fun being the key driver for whether kids quit, we need to make sure we can define what fun means.  And as mentioned before, I have my definition; but I haven’t seen any others (from the articles I’ve read).  I believe kids have fun when they get better.  What kid doesn’t enjoy getting hits, making a play, or knowing how to play the game.  But, in order to get better, we as coaches must make sure our kids are working hard in practice.  We must make sure they are staying disciplined and not goofing around.  We need to make sure they remain focused.  And this is where I believe most youth coaches take a wrong turn.  They take the exact opposite approach.  Many youth coaches allow goofing around (to an extent).  They don’t demand focus, or hard work.  Taking a relaxed approach in these areas slows, if not eliminates, the players development.  My opinion on why they take this relaxed approach is that they believe they just want the kids to have “fun”.  And I believe they think that creating an environment that is disciplined; that demands focus; and hard work will take the fun out of it.

In the past year since I’ve been coaching my son’s coach pitch little league team, I have seen it all.  Kids playing in dirt; spinning around in circles in the outfield; climbing on the fence in the dugout.  And coaches let it go.  “Eh, they’re having fun.  Let them enjoy it” the coaches will say.  And these are usually the kids that will quit when they hit that pivotal age of 13.

I am assuming that those that administered these studies that show why kids quit are asking kids to pick a reason why they quit.  So, here’s a question that I would like to ask those that conducted the study.  Do you think that a kid would admit to quitting because they are no good?  I would have to say that they would rather say they quit because it’s no longer fun.  But, as I mentioned before, I think the two are intertwined.  When you’re not good at something, you won’t have any fun.  13 is a tough age for kids that play baseball.  When you make the jump to a bigger field, the throws that used to zip across the field now bounce before they get to first.  Fly balls to the outfield are now pop-ups to infielders.  Graduating to the bigger diamond presents a mental hurdle that many kids just can’t overcome.  And that mental hurdle is magnified when the physical skills were never truly developed.  So, those kids that we neglected to work with and let play in the dirt, or climb the fence, or spin around in circles in the outfield are now closer to being one of the many that quit.  Why?  Because they will struggle mightily to get a hit; make a play; or throw well enough to be of any value defensively.  Translation…the game will no longer be fun for them.

Baseball is a tough sport, mentally, for kids.  You’re up at bat all alone.  When you strike out, everyone sees it.  When you make an error, everyone sees it.  You can’t hide.  And when kids grow old enough to really start caring about their performance, they will become frustrated at each failure.  So let’s do our kids a favor and help them experience ‘fun’ by taking the right approach, which in my opinion is to help them improve their game.