I’ve lived my dreams. I’ve won so many NBA championships that I have lost count. I once scored 100 points in a game. Another time, I even tore my ACL, kept playing, and carried my team to win the NCAA National Championship. I was the first eight-year-old to play in the NBA. I was even Michael Jordan. Sometimes, I missed the game-winning shot, but I would bounce back in the next game! Before I reached the age of 13, I had accomplished more in my basketball career than every player in the Hall of Fame put together.

My earliest memories as a child were of spending hours and hours in my backyardnot in deliberate practice, not even in pursuit of a dream, but living a dream. I lived my dreams every time I stepped onto the blacktop in my backyardeven on the 100-degree afternoons in South Carolina. I lived whatever I could dream up.

If we were fortunate enough to catch a college or NBA game through the rusted antenna on top of our house, then it just fueled those dreams. I remember watching Michael Jordan dismantle the Suns, the Sonics, and the Jazz, and, after every game I watched, I would head straight into my backyard to dream, and I would live out that dream on the blacktop.

But when I got to high school, something happened. I stopped dreaming. It all came to a halt when adults attempted to motivate me to work harder by yelling, criticizing my every mistake and using shame and anger to push me to my limits.

We Play to Have Fun

“You have to love a sport to play it well, and love grows out of enjoyment.”

—Jack Nicklaus

Research shows that the #1 athletes play sports is for fun. You might think this would change at the higher levels, but it doesn’t. Fun is still the #1 reason Olympic Athletes play their sport.

My love for the game of basketball came from an experience that many adults may share with me, but I am afraid that experience may not exist for most children in today’s sporting culture. Around the time I reached high school, reality set in. I knew I needed to start practicing harder and longer. Some of my time playing basketball needed to be more intentional; it needed to be more deliberate practice. So, I started to put in some hard hours of work: plyometric jumping programs, workout plans, and hot, sweaty days in the YMCA gym. This hard work only fueled my passion and love for the sport.

It is a good thing when we use our passion to help shape our virtue and character in pursuit of a dream. We want sports to do just that! But something in the sporting environment changed, and it sent me down a path that led me to not just hate my sport but to hate myself, too.

A coach came into my life—the transactional kind. The kind who expressed his love by screaming, yelling, and tearing me down, so he could build me back up into a man. Except, I didn’t need to be broken down or motivated. I just needed my passion to be guided towards working hard for my dreams and goals. I needed to be told that my aspirations were honorable and good, and that I should pursue them with all my heart.

How to Keep Sports Fun

Sadly, today’s youths face many issues that keep them from dreaming and falling in love with sports. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but here are some of the biggest obstacles to growing a passion for sports:

1. Technology: TV, phones, and video games are easy distractions from more beneficial activities, like reading a book, throwing a ball around, playing with action figures, or climbing a tree. We should do our best to cut these distractions out of our kids’ lives.

2. Fear: The world is getting more dangerous, but we can’t let our fear of injury or something bad happening keep our children from experiencing life. I am not sure what exactly is a healthy balance, but I know that in most cases, we are letting our fear keep our kids from experiencing a full life.

3. Structured Competitive Sports: Kids playing in the park, on the playground, or at the gym without referees or coaches is a dying pastime. We all know this was where we learned to compete! We didn’t need parents and coaches yelling at us, or referees organizing the game, for the game to be fun and competitive. In fact, all the pressure from referees, coaches, and parents can suck the fun out of it.

4. Adults Imposing Their Vision of Fun: I recently saw a lot of parents and coaches on Twitter say things like, “We play to win,” and “Winning is fun,” when I mentioned the notion that we were losing sports participation to video games. The truth is that kids don’t play to win as much as they play to have fun. Winning is ranked about 40th on the list in most research, and often, kids just want to win because of the validation and praise that they receive from adults when they do.

5. Obsession with College and Professional Sports: Not everyone can be a professional or collegiate athlete, and not everyone should want to be one. But adults in many circles seem to be obsessed with the idea that every kid needs to train like an Olympic athlete, with specialized, individualized training, and that they have to make sacrifices so that they can live their dream. But have they ever considered that it isn’t their child’s dream, but their dream instead?

We don’t need a massive overhaul of youth sports to start making positive change. We can start by simplifying our post-game analysis in the car on the way home from a game. All we need to do is say those six powerful words: “I love to watch you play.”

So, next weekend, try this: Invite a couple of families over, unplug the TV, turn off your phones, and get everyone in the backyard to play some “pick-up” soccer, basketball, football, or whichever sport you love!