How to Create Engagement in Youth Sports — Learning from the Big Boys

Nabil Murad
4 min readOct 18, 2021

Part II — What Everyone else has figured out that we haven’t!

In my last post, I shared some of my thoughts about why practices need to be engaging and fun. The basic premise is that in order to be fun and engaging, we need to understand the motives behind those players showing up.

After all, fun means something different to different people. When we begin to connect emotionally with those around us, we have a better chance of affecting behaviour. This is where we pick up today.

Traditional Learning Environments differ from the Big Time Corporations in a major way, specifically in the manner in which they are set up. Traditional learning environments are set up so that the learner is in Survival mode by default. Big-time Corps, on the other hand are designed so that the learner is in Explorative Mode.

It looks logical to most people how traditional learning centres are set up, with the tools being provided to address certain problems that learners are sure to face. However, unfortunately, this is based on a logical fallacy (the idea that an opinion or argument sounds convincing, but is based on faulty logic and is therefore flawed).

I believe this because Traditional Learning Environments tend to ignore the emotional and psychological elements of the learners, whereas Social Media Companies (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.) and Video Game Companies (PlayStation, X-Box, Nintendo) invest heavily in the emotional and psychological needs (perhaps wants is a better fit than needs) of their users.

Our emotions are critical in everything that we do as how we feel affects what we think, which ultimately impacts our actions, behaviours and subsequent performances.

The Big Corps figured this out a long time ago and have hired, consulted and sought out advice from behavioural psychologists to create games and applications that keep the participants engaged throughout their experience.

The Social Dilemma, a documentary on Netflix highlights how some of these social media companies have implemented such changes to keep people interested and coming back to the platform. Video Game companies hire behavioural experts to figure out how to keep gamers coming back to the platform and playing more and more.

It’s not limited to Social Media or Video Games, as governments are also getting in on the act hiring behavioural psychologists to figure out how they can create engagement, increase interest and ultimately impact behavioural patterns, which is at the heart of learning. Learning ultimately equals to a change in behaviour.

And one of the best ways to impact peoples emotional and psychological needs is through playing games. In 2012, Homeland Security (US) hired Legacy Interactive to design a game (Disaster Hero) that would help kids learn how to react in the event of a disaster. The Military, Air Force, and other Law Enforcement Agencies are all doing the same thing.

The military, the FBI and local police departments, for instance, are hiring companies to produce games to help train personnel to drive tanks, protect computer networks and even handle prison riots.

Arielle Lehrer (CEO, Legacy Interactive)

These companies and corporations don’t go around in schools or in person trying to explain the logic of why these games are important. At least not to the desired participants. Instead, they leave bread crumbs. In addition to spending on behavioural experts, they spend even more money on marketers and storytellers to create a story that inspires you to play.

This inspiration turns to excitement through a myriad of small psychological tricks. Now, kids can’t wait to get home and play the game. They can’t wait to buy the new game that is coming out in a months time. They can’t wait to discuss their achievements with their friends in school the next day. They compare stats and progress. They compare badges earned and achievements unlocked. The list goes on and on and on.

Inspiration — Curiosity — Exploration

The difficulty that youth sports organisations have, almost universally, is a lack of funds. There is no budget for a sports psychologist to come in and work with the organisation to share ideas and help elicit a similar excitement with our youth players.

Even if organisations could afford psychologists, the culture that has been created in sports would almost instantly ignore these pieces of advice with the age-old adage, “we don’t do that here” or “we don’t need that touchy-feely stuff”.

Sports, which is built on passion, excitement and emotions tend to miss the hoop when it comes to understanding sports psychology and mental performance.

The Big Corps have invested the time and finances to figure things out. We don’t need to start all over from scratch. The templates are there, the science is there, the research and results are available. Why build a new model when we can adapt an existing model?

In understanding the power that games have over traditional learning environments, they are three key features to look at:

  1. Obvious Goals
  2. Clear Feedback
  3. Appropriately Challenging

I’ll be discussing and sharing my thoughts on each one of these over the next couple of days. In the meantime, check out some of my other articles on the site and leave some comments so that we can discuss further.



Nabil Murad

Full time professional youth basketball with an avid interest in meta-learning. Passionate about youth development, behavioural psychology and storytelling