Creating Engagement in Youth Sports

Part IV — Interesting and Challenging is a Key Feature

In our previous post, we discussed two features (Goals and Feedback) that video games have which create engagement and excite players. The third feature that is different between video games and youth practice environments is that video games are interesting and challenging.

Regardless of what game you play, there are challenges that need to be overcome in order to complete the overall objective of the game. Oftentimes, these challenges are completely unnecessary, however, each one is unique in its own way.

I mean, what exactly is the point of those bullets in Mario anyway?

The point is that these external, unnecessary challenges make the game interesting, memorable and enjoyable. It keeps the player on the edge of their seat and unsure of what will come next. Each challenge builds interest and confidence, especially when you have to reach the edge of your comfort zone in order to overcome the challenge.

In order to complete the overall objective of the game, the smaller challenges allow you to acquire skills, unlock features or clues that are useful at a later stage. This means that these challenges, which may or may not be conducive to the game are stacking up.

The Bullet Bills, or the Piranhas in Super Mario Bros. are completely irrelevant in defeating Bowser.

However, they help familiarise the player with the game, allowing the player to try new moves and help decrease reaction time. These things are needed in order to defeat Bowser and rescue the Princess.

Super Mario Bros. does a great job at introducing irrelevant characters and challenges (underwater or chains of fire level)to keep the game fresh, memorable and enjoyable, which keeps the player coming back.

It is the same idea that TV Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad used to make their show quite popular. Viewers come back because they don’t quite know what will happen in the next episode. However, they know that it will be exciting, unpredictable and memorable. This is why TV Shows always finish their episodes on a cliffhanger.

They want you to come back, and they’re dedicated to improving. So, they keep learning, improvising, adapting and reinventing themselves. The same goes for Video Game Companies — Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite are just two games that have increased autonomy in recent years. Players can choose whether to follow the mission or go off on their own and explore the game. They can interact with several components that game designers have deliberately left out for them.

This means that players who don’t want to be constricted in time or locked to a certain mission have the option of literally exploring the game, discovering hidden alleys, features, levels or cheat codes within the game.

Within youth sports organisations and practices, coaches want to control every element and this results in kids acting out. There’s no room for autonomy, and so the kid’s rebel. A classic tale that anyone who has read even a little history will know about — too much control inevitably leads to rebellion.

An idea for youth organisations to consider is having a weekly segment where players can just explore or engage in some creativity. (We’ll discuss this point in a later post)

More. . .

The three features, goals, feedback and challenges, are key concepts that companies, governments and corporations are paying millions of euros to behavioural psychologists to figure out.

As coaches, leaders or even just as people wanting to make a positive impact in a kids life, we have to analyse what it is about these features that kids like and relate to. Next, we have to ask ourselves, how can we implement them within our practice environments.

Alex Sarama, a professional coach in Italy does a great job in merging current affairs within his team practices. Themes from Harry Potter (The Golden Snitch), James Bond, Fast and The Furious, Battleship and Minecraft are constantly being used to inspire, engage and create memorable experiences for the players.

Video Games do this all the time. Fortnite released a new feature last week, skins from the upcoming film, Dune. Players are enticed to upgrade or pay a little extra so that they can get this skin.

It’s not about being logical; rather it is about getting the players to want to play, engaging their minds, enhancing their interests, turning up the dial on their enjoyment and watching their motivations light up. These elements are what cause behaviour change, and ultimately improvement in performance, not the boring logical progression of building blocks.

Coaches can spend their time fighting for their players’ attention and end up disciplining players when they don’t get it (survival learning mode), or they can spark their players’ interests and be amazed by the results they get (exploration learning mode). To understand more about survival and exploration learning modes, check out this article on Teaching Kids to Love the Game.

It is incredibly difficult, in fact, it could be borderline impossible to account for all the different variables coaches need to take care of in order to deliver a quality practice session for youth players. However, that is what is needed to make a meaningful impact and get kids engaged, interested and fall in love with the game.

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