is fun a cognitive distortion for PE and sport coaching?

It is frequent to read a blog or post somewhere on social media about the importance of 'fun' in PE and sport coaching settings. Sometimes, fun is suggested in these posts as the remedy for poor participation in PE and for youth retention in sport. Fun Integration Theory suggests fun as the centre piece for changing the high attrition rate from sport during adolesence. Fun is often drawn upon, sometimes in a concrete and sometimes in a figurative or metaphorical use of the word, as an assumed essential component of the motivation to be physically active for children, youth, and even adults.

Recently, the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance released the updated national report cards on children and adolescent development of movemnt competency and physical activity behaviour. (see the latest and past report cards here ) It is not great reading for those concerned for the promotion of physical activity participation, and those involved in education for physical activity participation throughout the lifecourse, such as physical education teachers. Recently, I also watched again Daniel Kahneman's Ted Talk The riddle of experience verses memory Somehow, I connected the two together and the question formed in my mind, Is fun a cognitive distortion for PE and sport? Or perhaps, an illusory certainity? A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated,  unsubstantiated, or unevidenced thought used to reinforce a belief. An example of a cognitive distortion in PE is the common perception that providing children and youth with lots of different activities in PE will expose them to something they like that they will then choose to pursue 'beyond the classroom' and into their later life - which leads to what has been called the 'multi-activity curriculum model' for PE. An illusory certainity is a form of narrative fallacy, an illusion of knowability (to read more about this concept, see the book The Halo Effect). Is fun a narrative fallacy for PE and sport that distracts teachers and coaches from 'higher order' considerations for effective teaching and learning that provide childrem, youth and adults the confidence in one's actual and perceived competence, which in turn gives confidence in the choice to be physically active?

A concept like 'fun' may be too subjective to the individual for it to be a legimate focus and anything more than a narrative fallacy for quality physical education and sport participatory environments, and therefore a cognitive distortion. Fun is a fairly simple word, and an easy label - but what is it really? My 20 year old son has always found climbing enjoyable - 'fun'. When I climb, I am consistently thinking of things like 'its not going to be good if the rope fails and I fall?' I find no fun in climbing or being at heights. Some of my mates get great joy from surfing, whereas I find joy in chasing a ball around a park in a team game (like football), or hitting a ball against a wall (like playing squash). Daniel Kahneman's work on the psychology of happiness provides insights we can draw upon when judging the the strength of 'fun theory' thinking for PE and sport settings.

Daniel Kahneman's research suggests we choose to do things based on the memory of the experience and the anticipation of the new memory that will be created. In other words, what is important in directing behavioural choices is the story that is created from the memory of the experience. Kahneman proposes that it is our 'remembering self' that maintains the story of our lives which directs our decisions. The experiencing self which lives in the present is not central in our meaning making about our lives. Most of our experiences don't leave a trace in our memory, they are lost or ignored. Our 'remembering self' is a story teller. Kahneman suggests we tend to more easily remember the dangers and rewards of life than the familar. If this is the case, the question for teachers and coaches, whose work is essentially pedagogical, is how do we create experiences which are rewarding in PE and sport settings? This is important if the remembering self is the architect of our choice decision making.

The significance of Kahneman's research is the idea that our remembering self can feel very different about an event than we feel at the time of experiencing it. Something may have moments of 'fun' or enjoyment, but the memory of the experience may not be one of satisfaction with the experience or the outcome of the experience.

Influencing the remembering self
Research by Schiller, Darbyshire and MacDougall in the early 2000's found that in general, children are motivated to play (including sports where they modify rules, which they see as play - think of the way generations past modified the rules of cricket for backyard and driveway games), but sport was seen as something for talented children and adult led. Play was seen to be 'owned' by the children while sport was 'owned' by adults. Physical activity and exercise held little meaning and provided no motivation for physical activity. The messaging of physical activity and exercise had no meaning to the children who perceived these messages as adult wants and concerns. The health benefits of physical activity were not motivators of behaviour for the children (for a summary of the research, see here, and this paper provides a good account of the research. Many of the authors other papers are available open source by the their Research Gate and/or accounts). A finding from this research initiative was that choice and how decisions are made was a powerful distinguishing element of what motivated children to play. 

Research we did into why children drop out of sport indicated that it was the absence of agency and choice that led to youth choosing to do something other than continue with sport. The role of the coach was central in these feelings - relegating players consistently to the bench or peripheral roles where the player spent large portions of the game out of the play action (see the research paper here) led to players leaving the game to do something else. This makes sense if we think about the story being created for the individual's remembering self from the feelings associated with continually being 'left out of the action'. Thinking about this from a physical education perspective, we know you can't develop to a competent performer, whether it be skateboarding, volleyball or yoga, in 3-5 weeks: and yet, this reamins the dominant program model for PE I see as I travel. What story is the remembering self creating for young people who haven't engaged in substantial community sport and recreational opportunities via school or club programs across a range of movement forms after ten years of compulsory PE when their experience is one of continually finding out what they cannot do? The experiencing self may well have enjoyed the experience at the time, even experienced moments of 'fun', but at the end of the unit of work the young person knows they still cannot competently play (e.g.) volleyball: they 'sucked' at volleyball at the start and still 'suck' at volleyball at the end - what is the story of the remembering self if (e.g.) volleyball is encountered two or three years later in PE, or the opportunity to join a recretional team is presented to the person some time in their future?

The influential mind
Perhaps the motivating engine that is play can be explained by the influential mind - what Kahneman called our remembering self. PE teachers and sport coaches are in the broadest sense,  influencers, in the business of persuading people to play and be physically active.

In the book, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others Tali Sharot has explained the way emotion persuades behaviour, and in so doing, determines the moments that become (in the words of Kaheman) our remembering self. Metaphorically, emotional reactions are explained as the body's way of saying "pay attention, this is important". The amygdala is activated, the hippocampus is called upon, and activity in the regions of the brain cortex are altered, thus intensifying the memory of the moment. The trick from a behavioural view point, is to create that reaction with as many people as possible to achieve a similar physiological state so that individuals are processing the storyline of the moment in a similar manner. In other words, emotion is deliberately used to promote brain synchronization by directing everyone's attention in the same direction and by generating a similar psychological state. Belief in being rewarded and the belief that the activity will result in feeling good are the emotions to aim for when seeking to influence behaviour. Consistent with the findings from the work of Schiller, Darbyshire and MacDougall, Sharot also explains that giving people agency (choice) and a sense of control increases motivtion and compliance as it works on the belief of being rewarded and feeing good. It doesn't have to be actual choice, it need only be the perception of a sense of self control that enables one to feel good about an activity.

Perhaps, this is why play works as a motivator for physical activity. It creates memories ("how good was that wave!" "that shot down the wall that left you stranded mid court felt sweet!" "did you see that catch!") and provides the perception of agency and choice. This is something I wrote briefly about in my last blog, Let them play!

Where does that leave 'fun'?
For me, that leaves fun as a metaphorical or figurative aim for PE and sport. The concepts through which to achieve this metaphorical state of fun in PE and sport settings are immersion and agency. The idea of immersion can be explained by the concepts of the zone of proximal development and 'challenge point' theory. Zone of proximal development can be thought of as the zone in which the learner perceives the challenge of achievement as attainable - its is close (proximal). Challenge point is a similar concept, and can include the concept of stretch, or in other words, a process that is 'pleasantly frustrating'  - it is hard but 'doable' (a key concept in the design of player engagement in video games, which I have written about in a previous blog What does it mean for pedagogy to think like a game developer?) The class climate created by immersion and agency is sometimes referred to as a 'mastery climate'. There is evidence that it is a mastery climate rather than 'fun' climates that should be aimed for in PE, with mastery climates having the 'added benefit' of promoting higher levels of student perception of physical and motor competence than performance climates, which are important factors in children and adolescents self determination in physical activity (Wadsworth et al., 2013).


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