The athletic arena is a place for hard work, dedication, respect, and steadfast determination. Players who don’t take the game seriously tend to become the weak link fairly quickly. But who says there isn’t room for fun, too? A supportive, encouraging (and yes, fun) coach can mean the difference between a team that bands together or one that breaks under pressure. 

Statistically, athletes who have fun quit at a much lower rate. In fact, in a poll conducted by the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), 70% of children quit sports by age 13 because they are not having fun anymore. Creating a positive team culture keeps athletes motivated to show up for practice and ready to leave it all on the field. Here are five ways coaches can build positive team dynamics into their playbook.

  1. Conduct Team-building Exercises 

Perhaps the most obvious of ways to strengthen your team and encourage them to have more fun,  team-building exercises are a great way to boost communication, collaboration, and loyalty. Whether you create a scavenger hunt, play sports-related Pictionary, host a “Show and Tell,” or conduct trust exercises, you’re bringing your team together in a profoundly productive way that will pay dividends both on and off the field.

  1. Offer Unstructured Playtime

Never underestimate the power of a little unstructured playtime. Defined by the American Psychological Association as “play that isn’t organized or directed by adults or older peers and that generally doesn’t have a defined purpose or outcome,” giving players an opportunity to let loose promotes social skills and cognitive development. It can even strengthen concentration, resulting in more quality practice time! 

Whether you offer a period of unstructured play at the beginning of practice before getting down to business or employ it as a reward after a job well done, you’re saying to your athletes, “We aren’t all work and no play; there’s a time and place for fun in sports.” 

  1. Implement Player-led Practices

When coaches, parents, or peers attempt to micro-manage every aspect of practice, players lose ownership of the experience. To re-energize and re-engage your team, try introducing a player-led practice. Allow team members to choose between conditioning exercises, lead drills, play motivating music, and even try their hand at calling in plays. If you want to offer your team a lesson in how to practice mental toughness, player-led practices are a wonderful option. You might even find that the experiment earns you a higher level of respect for your own efforts.

This approach has proven to work even at the professional level. Detroit Lions’ Head Coach Dan Campbell made headlines when he turned over the reins to his team for a player-run practice session last August, telling the press, "It's their team. I want them to have ownership in it." 

  1. Vary Your Workouts

One needs only consult the idiom “Variety is the spice of life” for insight into how to implement a bit of sports fun. Boredom doesn’t only plague the mind — it can affect the body, too! Changing up your workouts keeps practices interesting. While there are countless ways to offer some diversification, consider getting the ball rolling by altering your focus each time, emphasizing different elements such as technique, strength, intensity, and speed. Another way to avoid stagnant practices is to employ the buddy system. Pairing each player with a team partner not only offers variety but encourages accountability.

  1. Lead by Example

Last, but certainly not least, the simplest way to infuse a dose of fun into your coaching playbook is to have more fun yourself! Leading by example is a powerful way to empower your players.