Having spent 20+ years working at residential summer camps for kids as a counsellor and camp director, on some days I think I might have a bit of a gut feeling about what fun looks like for a group of kids. Summer camp is a fun factory - it's product is joy. Nailing down exactly what fun looks like and feels like is a fine art. At summer camp, this art is mastered by 19 year olds who lead the program as camp counsellors. Camp Counsellors work really hard to create fun - the reality is though that their role isn't always the highest valued role by society (these kids earn peanuts for wages), but paradoxically their work is highly valued by the kids who work with them. For many reasons, many summer camps have got it together in creating fun. Knowing just the right amount of leadership to provide - allowing for plenty of choices - and understanding the need for challenge, camaraderie laughter, and self direction - if you've been to a good summer camp, you'll know exactly what I am talking about. Anyone can do this though - a big part of the equation is just being able to join in on it all - modelling what you're looking for and reinforcing the right kind of energy.
In the NCCP coaching materials there is a piece of research shared that asks kids what is important to them when participating in a sport - the top response is 'sport needs to be fun' - and for kids who have stopped participating in sport who were asked what would it take to get you back involved - again the top response was 'I'd join in again if it was fun'. I'm sure you will agree that this stuff is worth giving some attention to and as I'm certain many of you already do - adding a bit of 'creating some fun' into your skill set when working with youth. In some ways, working with early adolescents is the world of the middle school teacher - knowing how to relate to adolescents - adolescents who for all accounts become a different species for a few years. Great middle school teachers know how to use humour, build relationships that leverage engagement, and keep things pretty light hearted. Great coaches know how to do this as well. I know a number of them personally. When you see this work in action - you know something special is going on - kids stick around, get excited about ski racing - the reality is that cross country ski racing is not the easiest sport in the world - so when you've got something good cooking, it is often because you've thought of the recipe beforehand. I am so lucky to have been in spaces where this has happened - and where it is happening.
So if fun is so important what does it look like? Fun is a great energy, focused on something positive, often without a very important outcome attached, and in the arena of adolescent sport, generated and sustained by kids. Adults are great a creating fun as well - but sometimes we have a harder time with it because we've got so many other things to take care of - (fun for us often includes a few of the right kind of beverage). Nurturing the care free state of childhood for kids is a gift - a gift that lasts for a few years. Games are fun - but fun is bigger than a backpocket full of games - fun is an energy that is created.
I recently got a text from my program director, saying that his daughter who is in the T2T group I am coaching, got in the car after practice saying 'that was the hardest and most fun workout I have ever been to'. Of course its nice to get these sort of texts - especially when they come from the guy who supervises your work - but thinking back on the practice session - it really wasn't particularly hard to pull together or require lots of planning and coordination. What we did - and I do think it came off pretty well - was do an 'amazing race' style of running workout - kids got a map - ran from one station to another (over several kilometers) - got to choose between 'running around the lake' or doing '200 push ups' - then run on to the next station where they had equally as fun activities to choose from. It was a race of course (it was a day when I had wanted to do some speed work) with everyone getting some gummy prizes at the end - the higher the finish, the more gummy treats. Because I knew that the kids would be fired up about seeing their names on zone 4, I even posted some results there http://zone4.ca/results.asp?id=5099 - our T2T group loved the workout.
Our role as coaches is bigger than creating some fun though. I might argue that kids can get that somewhere else - they can go to summer camp, they can get it at middle school, they can get it in their cul-de-sacs or in the forest behind their house on a unicycle. For me, coaching cross country skiing is about hooking kids on a great sport - helping them develop the technical skills and physical fitness to perform in a way they're happy with. For me, that is the primary outcome I strive for in my coaching - to build the engine - the engine is made up of pieces like the carburator and the pistons and the crankshaft that form the structure and mechanical engineering of the vehicle - they're what makes the engine run. I like to think that there is another important piece, I think of fun as the oil - the lubricant that makes the pieces of engine work well together. When the engine is running well, adolescents are ready to learn how to drive. I know its a little out there but I'll tell you, kids can feel it - I know this because they are smiling, laughing, talking, being silly and responding when they need to switch gears.
What is important to coaches is evident to the kids that they coach. Adolescents know if their coach sees them as someone who has great potential, or if their coaches think someone else in their training group has great potential. All of this might be pretty irrelevant to a coach who is strictly performance driven. Don't get me wrong - I think performance is incredibly important - it is important to each and every young skier. Every kid in a Train to Train program wants to improve, has a dream of finishing on the podium, of getting there, of doing it themselves. Great coaches leverage this, for the top performers, and also for every young skier they work with.
So if you're like me, and you're interested in helping as many kids as possible to reach their potential as athletes, if you're interested in trying to keep kids engaged - then thinking about the fun-work balance is an important piece in the puzzle.