The Incredibly Massive Importance of Play (Part 1)

By John O’Sullivan

Let me be blunt and scream this from the rooftop: the best athletes PLAY sports. They don’t work them, they play them. When sport becomes more work than play, athletes struggle, they grind, and if they cannot get back to playing instead of working, they eventually drop out. From youth to pros, when the fun goes, soon to follow is performance.

But what about developing future athletes? What is the role of play in the training and advancement of aspiring young players to the next level? Should they be practicing or playing sports? If they do both, is one more important than the other?

For kids under 12, I believe wholeheartedly the answer is yes. And that answer is PLAY!

The role of deliberate practice in skill acquisition is a hot topic. Without rehashing everything I have written on the subject in the past, simply defined deliberate practice is the focused improvement through repetitive activity, continual feedback and correction, and the delay of immediate gratification in pursuit of long term goals. There is no question that expert performers accumulate many hours of deliberate practice, and there is a strong correlation between hours of deliberate practice and performance level in elite performers.

What gets lost in the focus on practice is the massive importance of deliberate play. Researcher Jean Cote defines deliberate play as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

In our increasingly structured world of youth sports, coupled with the decline of recess and playground pick up games, deliberate practice is increasingly emphasized, and play is deemphasized. Yet is this helping us develop better athletes? I say no.

Why?

First, at the very core of great athletes is a burning passion and love of the game. That love and enjoyment provides them with the intrinsic motivation to pursue sport excellence. While coaching can foster this love, and provide an athlete with the feedback needed to develop skill, the flame must be fed primarily by the athlete and not the coach. Kids play sports because they are fun. Sports must belong to them.  Play instills this type of love and makes it fun, while practice often does not. Instilling love of the game early on sets up a player mentally to engage in deliberate practice later on.

Second, an early focus on deliberate practice and pursuit of long term success, instead of playing for the love of the game, can cause motivation to become extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. Athletes motivated extrinsically by championships, fame and social identity tied to athletic success have been shown to burnout at a much higher rate than athletes who participate for enjoyment. They are also more likely to protect that identity through cheating and other maladaptive behaviors designed to continue successful outcomes.

Third, free play and multi-sport play promotes the development of better all around athleticism. As children play less and practice more (often in a single sport) using sport specific muscles and movements, experts in many sports have noticed a decline in the agility, balance and coordination skills of young athletes as compared to decades ago.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, play stimulates brain development. It hastens the growth of the brain centers that regulate emotion and control both attention and behavior. Play inspires thinking and adaptation, promoting creative problem solving and conflict resolution. It allows children to build their own games, define their own rules, and develop the cognitive skills that are needed not only for athletics, but in every aspect of life.

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.”

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