Kids’ Sports: Winning versus Having Fun

What’s More Important? Winning or Having Fun?

So, here’s the thing about winning versus having fun:  it’s more fun to win than to lose.  I hate to sound all “not PC,” but that is the truth.  On the other hand, there is nothing more unattractive than a parent out of control on the sidelines screaming at their kids with the intensity of someone whose head might explode if their child doesn’t do exactly what s/he is screaming about.  That’s not pretty and sometimes this story ends tragically.

When it comes to sports, one thing a parent can teach both on and off the field is good manners, sports etiquette, sportsmanship.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s probably the most important lesson we should be imparting in the sports arena regardless of how well we might have excelled long ago on a sports field in our youth.

Rick Meyers, tennis coach at Abilene Country Club puts it best, “Sports are just a tool to help kids become a responsible adult.”  Marc Orner,  Abilene Sports Psychologist has another perspective, “…the goal for any child playing sports should be to have fun. And while it may be difficult to define fun, it’s easy to spot.”

And fun is a crucial element to success because if your child isn’t having fun playing a sport, she or he will never want to continue.  Athletes of any stripe have to practice hard and put in long hours to get better and certainly to play at elite levels.

But what is your job, parent?  Focus on teaching your child these topics:

  • How to win gracefully:  “Good Game!”
  • How to lose graciously:   “You played great!”
  • How to give credit to your teammates: “Nice assist! You helped me score that goal! I couldn’t have done it without you!”
  • How to try your hardest:  “You never gave up!”
  • How to respect teammates who try their hardest regardless of natural ability:  “S/He is really improving and really tries hard!”
  • The importance of fair play:  “It should be their ball.”

And what about the fun part?

  • Appreciate the glorious day spent outdoors
  • Appreciate that you made new friends
  • Appreciate the improvement that you are making
  • Recognize your teammates’ improvement
  • Appreciate that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you can always get your parents to take you out for ice cream afterwards!  Or at least visit the ice cream truck that is hovering near the field.
  • Appreciate the snack that someone brings you and that you don’t normally get at home
  • Appreciate that this sport is fun to play
  • Appreciate that everyone is good at something whether it is sports, music, being a good friend, art, academics, or something else

And parents, what is appropriate from the sidelines?

  • Encouragement to your child and teammates (nice try!, very close!). Don’t shout out instructions!  This is easy to do if you avoid shouting any word that resembles a VERB!
  • Cheering for the other team when they do something well (like score a goal or great defense)
  • Providing cold fruit for the half time (watermelon and oranges are very popular choices!)
  • Making new friends (which might hopefully lead to carpooling!)

Here’s a helpful article from Footballer21, on the U.S. Women’s National Teams Program.  I pulled an excerpt of the key points:

“Admit that we’re obsessed with winning. When Suzie comes home after her game, the first thing we ask is did she win and the second thing is did she score a goal? Reframe the way we look at sport.

Suzie, “How was the game today? Did you have fun? Did your team play well? How did you play? Did you do some of the new things the coach asked you to try? Are you hungry?”

In youth soccer, the priority for coaches and players should be on individual player development and learning.  Set age and ability specific technical, tactical, psychological, and physical goals to aid in optimizing player development. This will provide coaches a framework and structure to follow. These goals also provide an alternative for coaches and parents to measure achievement and development of their players.

For under 14 and younger, the primary objective of game participation and training is to provide the players with learning opportunities. Teams should “strive to win,” but this should not be the focus of any training sessions, half-time talks or player motivations. At the age of 14 and above, careful consideration needs to be placed on balancing instances where in addition to developing as individuals and a team, finding ways to ‘win’ also becomes part of the overall objective.

One of the biggest obstacles in women’s athletics is that young girls are socialized not to be competitive. By all means, ‘teach players to compete, to compete hard, to compete to win, but don’t have winning be the only measure of success.’ Choose which tournaments and games are to be played to ‘learn,’ and which are to be played to, ‘win.’ It is not in the best interest of the players’ development to have a schedule where the sole purpose for participation is ‘winning.’ Individual and team improvement and peak performance should be the measure of achievement, rather than winning or losing.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Melissa Gulley

    Great post!!! Very hot topic, well done.

  2. Coming from Europe and raising three sons in the U.S., I hated the way so many parents screamed at my son’s games. I blocked my ears as it upset me. I thought this is for your kids, not for you. STOP IT! What are you teaching your kids. It felt like the parent were reliving their victories/and failures through their kids. I feel so strongly about this topic. great post, I’d like to write about it at some point and link back to yours.

  3. Julia Skinner

    Great post. I so hate it that we are supposed to keep PC. Children need to learn that life is not always fair and how to deal with it.

  4. Capability

    Great post! There was a nice article in the Globe the other day about how Wheelock College is focusing on character not winning. http://bit.ly/nC3pGi

  5. Candy Cohn

    Thanks for sharing these important thoughts on competing. As the assistant director of a non-competitive arts focused camp, I know how important it is to turn each moment into an intentional learning opportunity. Children benefit from learning how to use their frustrations to improve both their skills and their character. This in turn, leads to boosted self-esteem. The way a person responds to “failure” is crucial in every phase of one’s life. As a tennis player and avid cyclist, I myself am not overly competitive, though I try to learn and push myself to improve in all these aspects, while mostly appreciating how good it feels to “play!”

  6. Great discussion. I never played competitive sports growing up, but as a mom of two boys, I am trying to learn how to handle these situations — and choose which activities and leagues to join.

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