Rocket fuel.

10.08.18
Dave Mason

Work ethic. Intensity. Compete level.

Every good coach hopes to help instill these attributes in the athletes they work with. Because they know that when they’re combined with strong physical capability, skill, and sport-specific IQ, they tend to generate positive athletic results. But there’s another thing that generates positive results because it enhances the attributes listed above. That thing is ‘fun’.

Fun gets a bit of a bad rap from some in the sports world, because it appears to be at odds with the ‘serious’ stuff. I mean, fun isn’t serious. How can a serious athlete have fun if they’re supposed to be intense, focused, highly competitive, and working their hardest? Sports psychologists know that question should be flipped around. How can a serious athlete be their most intense, most focused, most competitive, and work their hardest if they’re not having fun?

We like to say that feedback is fuel, because it provides athletes with evidence of progress, instruction, and encouragement they can use to build on. Well, fun is also fuel. Rocket fuel.

Ever notice how people just seem to operate at higher levels when they perceive the thing they’re doing to be ‘fun’? That applies to sports, study, and whatever it is most of us do at our day jobs. How many times have you heard the saying ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’? How many times have you heard a professional athlete say something along the lines of “We’re really having fun right now” when they’re being interviewed after a win? Why? Are they having fun because they’re winning? Or are they winning because they’re having fun?

 

“Even at the pro level, the coaches try to make it fun for players, because fun works.”

Todd Woodcroft
Assistant Coach
Winnipeg Jets

 

Fun is good for us physically and psychologically. It boosts endorphins, decreases stress, and improves pain tolerance. It jacks up our energy levels, and enhances relationships when shared with others. If you’re coaching athletes — especially team athletes like hockey players — that sounds like some stuff that might be useful.

We are what feedback trains us to be.

Essentially, people are information gathering and processing machines. Our senses continuously collect data that helps us make sense of and navigate the world, and we put that data into positive and negative feedback loops that train us, over time, to either repeat or avoid certain things.

The physical pain we feel when we stick a finger into a birthday cake flame the first couple of times is part of a negative feedback loop that trains us not to do that. Not fun. The warm internal glow we feel when we get a high five from our coach or team mates when we do something good is part of a positive feedback loop that tells us we should try even harder to do more of that thing.

Through feedback loops, over time, many guiding behaviors become subconscious — we just know not to stick our fingers into a flame. Likewise, we can just know that we should be focused, highly competitive, and intense when we step on the ice for a hockey practice or game.

Receiving positive feedback is fun. Receiving negative feedback is not.

Human beings are naturally drawn to the positive and repelled by the negative. When we experience positive feedback, we feel things that increase the likelihood of us wanting to repeat whatever it was we got praised for, and we also feel positively about the person giving the praise. Sure, we need negative feedback to help us figure out what not to do. But when we get too much negative feedback about something, we’re likely to want to stay away from that thing — and away from the person who delivers that feedback. As a coach, which scenario would you want your kids to most strongly associate with hockey?

We love it when we see coaches use PowerPlayer to help feed positive hockey feedback loops for their athletes by injecting a little more ‘fun’ into their coaching. Giving a young player a high rating because they had a strong Tuesday night practice triggers that player’s psychological reward center, and that promotes more of the same behavior. And sending a kid a comment and a goofy GIF or YouTube video to acknowledge their work ethic, intensity, focus, or compete level reminds them that sure, hockey requires all of those things, but those things ultimately generate fun.

Another bonus: the simple act of providing positive/fun feedback creates a stronger connection between the player and the coach, which ultimately makes the player more receptive to needed instructional/corrective feedback.

So yes, fun is positively serious stuff for athletes. Give it a whirl.