The Incredibly Massive Importance of Play (Part 2)

By John O’Sullivan

One of the greatest differences between adults and children is that adults are goal oriented, and children are focused on immediate pleasure. Adults see everything as leading toward something in the future – the big picture if you will – and thus tend to look at everything we do not simply for “how does this serve me now” but “how will this serve me in the future.” As a result, we tend to look at play, with its focus on immediate gratification instead of long term goals, as a waste of time, and an obstacle to long term growth. It might be getting in the way of things we want for our children in the future, so we tolerate it only to a point.

As a result, we look down upon coaches who roll a ball out and say “go play.” We get angry when our soccer coach sits quietly on the bench, letting the kids work through their own problems, all bunched up in a giant blob, making mistakes without fear of repercussions and public correction, and playing a game that looks nothing like the adult version we see on TV.

We get upset that our coach does not teach kids positions, when in reality they do not possess the ability to understand a position until they understand positioning (do I need to provide, depth, width, close support, etc.). In other words, we have a long term goal in mind, and we want to get our kids to that goal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Clearly by sitting there and not fixing the problem, our coach is delaying their development, right?

Wrong. The coach is doing it right. He is fostering development by helping them learn, and guiding their discovery of the answers rather than providing the answers. He gives them ideas in practice, but then lets them develop skill, creativity and critical thinking during the game. Everything that intuitively feels like inhibiting development is actually promoting it.

Yet many parents and coaches do not realize this.

As a result, we want them to practice, and not play.

We feel compelled to tell them where to be and what to do, instead of guide them to find the answers on their own.

We believe that if we help them acquire enough skill first, then they will fall in love with the game and be intrinsically motivated to pursue it to a higher level.

We measure development through the outcome of games, because outcomes are how we measure success in the adult world.

In the end, we take away play, and substitute work, believing that is the path to performance.

We are wrong!

Show me a list of the best players in any team sport where creativity is valued, such as soccer, hockey or basketball, and the vast majority of them, if not all of them, will have a background filled with a lot more play than practice prior to the age of 12. For some it is play in one sport, and others it is multi-sport participation. The common denominator is an early focus on enjoyment and fearless competition, rather than results and advancement. Top athletes played sports, and have a higher level of intrinsic motivation and autonomy than their fellow competitors who go down the early practice route.

Hopefully, we all want our athletes to develop the ownership, motivation and enjoyment to pursue a sport long term, not only as an participant, but as a fan, a coach, and a lifelong passionate supporter of the game. It is very hard to put aside our adult values, to ignore the great futures we see for our athletes and/or our kids, and instead allow them to focus on the present. It is difficult to put aside the perspective we have gained over the years, which tells us that the only things we regret are the things we did not do, that talent we did not develop, the sport we chose not to pursue.

We do not want our kids to make the same mistakes. That is a great thing.

An even better thing you can do is to realize that the way to help them avoid those mistakes is not to force them onto the path that in hindsight we wish we had taken, but to give them the tools to find that path themselves.

And the best way to do that is to let them PLAY!

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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