Warrick Wood Ph.D.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Is It Important for Athletes to Have Fun?

Considering coaching strategies to promote athlete enjoyment

Posted May 12, 2016

As the level of professionalism in sport continues to grow, the stress levels that athletes experience also increases due to the widespread importance placed on success – generally measured by the outcome.  Whilst it can be argued that the outcome is most important at elite levels of competition, a win-first mentality has permeated throughout various age groups and has led to the establishment of an environment that can be extremely stressful and unenjoyable for the athletes involved.

It seems logical that creating a fun environment would be likely to enhance enjoyment levels, but in addition to this, it appears that coach-athlete interactions and integrating activities that athletes perceive as enjoyable may also have a positive impact on preparation and, ultimately, performance.  Preparing fully, in any context, is difficult to do if we are not enjoying the journey that we are on.  When we are experiencing an element of pleasure, we tend to push ourselves harder, focus more, and have a greater overall sense of satisfaction. 

Generally, what we are working towards in sport is achieving optimal performance when it matters – a pinnacle event for instance.  This is, of course, extremely challenging to do due to the various, and prevalent, uncontrollable factors and distractions.  When athletes are asked to reflect on a performance where they did achieve the illusive ‘zone’, they commonly report a high level of enjoyment and total absorption in the task at hand.  For many athletes, experiencing enjoyment is extremely challenging to do, however, if the environment is perceived as overly stressful.

As coaches then, we need to consider and evaluate our own approaches in regards to contributing to such a mindset; are we facilitating or undermining peak performance with the behaviors that we employ and atmosphere that we create?  Athletes have unique responses to various coaching behaviors, and the recipe for achieving peak performance will also vary greatly.  However, if it is believed that your athletes perform best when they are enjoying themselves, then having strategies in place to ensure a sufficient level of enjoyment is experienced will be a critical antecedent to athlete success.   

There are countless strategies that can be used to enhance enjoyment levels, and below are a few common tactics that can be employed by coaches to heighten a sense of enjoyment.

Emphasize a performance focus

Athletes, just like anyone else, have a basic psychological need to experience some form of control over their life.  When the primary focus of preparation and competition is performance (e.g. personal bests, controllable goals), opposed to outcome (i.e. win/loss), then athletes will experience heightened feelings of autonomy and control over their success.  If we believe that success is within our control, the journey becomes much more enjoyable. 

Foster a love for challenging oneself

Not every training session is going to be inherently enjoyable, at least not in the traditional sense of the word.  Sporting success requires hard work and pushing oneself outside of comfort zones in order to improve.  With that said, however, as support people, we can nurture a love for striving for success and doing everything possible to reach it.  We can do this through positive encouragement, praising effort, and (in collaboration with the athlete) setting realistic goals and acknowledging the athlete for reaching them – ensure that your athletes are aware that they are experiencing success.  If we achieve such a mindset, then athletes will begin to experience greater enjoyment during training sessions where they have to push themselves to extend their limits. 

Integrate music

The majority of individuals enjoy some form of music and, when played at an appropriate time during training sessions or warm-ups, it can have a positive influence on, among other things, enjoyment levels, motivation and intensity, and the energy of the overall environment.  Asking athletes what kind of music they would like played also provides a sense of autonomy and control that will likely have a number of positive benefits.

Have a sense of humor

It is important to have a good understanding of athlete needs prior to competition.  Some will have a preference for quiet time and space, whilst others like talking and joking around.  If athletes do enjoy joking around prior to performance, and know that this helps them achieve a mindset likely to facilitate optimal performance, then a coach can, and should, contribute to this.  Sharing a joke with an athlete may also lighten the mood, ease tension, and remind the athlete that it is, at the end of the day, not life and death.