After years of sitting and listening to competitive coaches, I am struck by their relationship with fun.  They will talk at length about offense, defense, discipline, and effort.... and a bit after the fact say, "and yeah, it needs to be fun."  Sometimes a shrug of the shoulder accompanies this afterthought.  Ultimately, a rather unconvincing advocacy for fun.  Coaches get regularly called to task by more politically correct sects for being out of touch and borderline abusive... and sometimes rightfully so.  Yet, not in this case, the shrug and "well sure I guess it's important," approach to fun is onto something.

There is a problem with fun.  It is the wrong word that creates the wrong idea... especially at more adult levels of competition (teenage years on).  Words matter.  They create cognitive schemas and shape behaviors.  Fun is the right idea, but the wrong mental message.

Fun sends a message of trivalness and purposeless living.  Fun, in the pleasurable sense, is hedonistic.  This is why it does not seem to sit right with many people who are engaged in competitive sport.  Fun is a lazy tropical vacation, not an early morning row on the river.  Fun is dinner with friends and a movie, not racing around a soccer pitch on a rainy afternoon.  The word "fun" occupies space in many minds that does not fit the emotion of striving on the playing field. 

So abandon the idea all together?  Certainly not.  Refine thinking and reword things a bit. 

At the foundation of play is "enjoyment."  An activity that engages interest and challenges the individual appropriately.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of Flow, articulates this concept so well: "[competitive sport] that stretches one's ability is enjoyable;" "after an enjoyable event, we know that we have changed;" "enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention." (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1998)  Enjoyment involves effort, both mental and physical.  It does not occur during trivial endeavors, but rather as part of a purpose driven life.  Effortful and purpose driven... sounds like sports.

Sport at all levels ought to be enjoyable.  This comes from embracing the many challenges of competition.  It also comes from abandoning the juvenille concept of fun.  The youngest athletes get enjoyment - they experiment with new techniques, they dare opponents to strike them out, they relish the brisk fall afternoons of play, and they strive with healthy grimaces on their faces.  To a casual observer, it would look like they are having fun... sure maybe, but truly they have mastered the enjoyment necessary for success at all stages and ages of sport.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Csikszentmihalyi, I. S., eds. (1988). Optimal Experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities
Adam Naylor, EdD, CC-AASP

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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