We are a species of play; we all crave aspects of play and fun, and the use of games can be a great tool to enhance this. After all, sports are nothing more than simple games. I want my training environment to be game-like and play-like rather than everything finely structured and done in a repeated fashion until it’s done “perfectly”. I want learning to come implicitly from an engaging, fun, and game-like environment rather than explicitly from me as the coach bombarding young learners with verbal feedback and cues the whole session. Working with youth athletes gives you a great perspective on the important things in life; one of those is fun. Training and sports in general tend to kill the fun by utilizing structured, repetitive, militaristic style training.

I was once that coach that had every training session laid out minute-to-minute. Every drill had to be done perfectly and my sessions ran like a well-oiled machine. This was until I realized my athletes aren’t robots and the energy in the room was coming from me NOT my athletes. Lo and behold, I’d throw in 5-10min of a fun game, and the energy in the room shifted, the athlete’s demeanor uplifted, and I enjoyed coaching more.

“If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right”

Movement and sport should be fun and it needs to be deeper than the hard-headed coach mentality, “Winning is fun”. Movement and play are something we should all enjoy and appreciate far beyond a sporting context. This appreciation can be cultivated by embracing this environment as a coach and immersing your athletes in a fun, freedom-filled, and exploration-based environment. To better appreciate this perspective, think of motor learning and skill acquisition as a search process (Pacheco, Lafe & Newell, 2019). The search through the perceptual-motor landscape for solutions to a wide variety of movement problems leads to creative, authentic, and organic behavior from athletes. Play provides athletes with opportunities to interact with information-rich environments that lead to adaptive and emergent movement behavior that is a hallmark of all skilled movers. Play can also be a valuable tool to learn the principles of game-play. A recent meta-analysis showed improved decision-making and off-ball adjustments, citing games as a potential benefit on tactical development (Robles et al., 2020). Even when play doesn’t fully replicate a full sporting environment, it can be beneficial by providing an affordance-rich environment, teaching about space, location within that space, and enhancing coordination and control within a dynamic environment. For example, parkour has been suggested as an adaptive platform for developing athletic skills. Due to its affordance-rich environment, it encourages exploratory and adaptive movements for creative, innovative, and autonomous performance by athletes (Strafford et al., 2018).

One of the main outcomes I want from my coaching is to facilitate creative and adaptive athletes. I believe creativity and adaptability are crucial components, not only to athletes, but also to overall human development. As coaches we often get carried away with wanting the strongest, most conditioned, or mentally tough team, but omit the promotion of creativity and adaptability. Adaptability is the ultimate quality of high performing organisms, as the great evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin first noted:

“It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent of the species that survives, it is the one most adaptable.”

Sport and life is a creative endeavor; a process of searching for human potential. Creativity is a resource that inspires further learning, especially in sport (Rasmussen, Ostergaard, Glaveanu, 2019). Creative movement is cultivated and arises from an environment that encourages exploration, play, and variability. It also comes from ownership and autonomy as an athlete. So, include your athletes in this process. Coaching is a partnership between a coach and their athletes; it’s a two-way street. We often forget to embrace and seek input from athletes and let them own their learning experience. So, involve your athletes. Give them freedom and choice. Ben Franklin put it well when he said:

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”

Part of the reason I take such a strong play approach is because of feedback from my athletes. Every six months we seek evaluation and feedback from our athletes on various aspects of our program.

A question we include in this evaluation is, “What do you wish we did more of?”

The top answer? “I wish we played more games.”

This is an unanimous sentiment from youth athletes, professional athletes, and our adults who work in high-stress environments. People of all ages, shapes, and goals want to play more games.

Finally, as someone who views sports performance through an Ecological lens, the use of general activities can be great for youth athletes. However, for more experienced and high-performance athletes, the tasks and environments need to move towards more highly representative activities that better specify the information sources, behaviors, and movement problems. While we still use some general play with elite athlete populations, it’s not used to the extent to which we use it with our youth, HS, and adult populations. So don’t think we are promoting an overly game-based environment for college or professional athletes. We hope you can begin to experience the benefits of play just as we have and that my suggestions can add value to your program. Lastly, as the great martial artist and movement philosopher, Bruce Lee said:

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own”

 

References

  1. Pacheco, M., Lafe, C. W., & Newell, K. M. (2019). Search Strategies in the Perceptual-Motor Workspace and the Acquisition of Coordination, Control and Skill. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1874
  2. Rasmussen, L. J., Østergaard, L. D., & Glăveanu, V. P. (2019). Creativity as a developmental resource in sport training activities. Sport, Education and Society, 24(5), 491-506.
  3. Robles, M. T., Collado-Mateo, D., Fernández-Espínola, C., Castillo Viera, E., & Gimenez Fuentes-Guerra, F. J. (2020). Effects of teaching games on decision making and skill execution: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(2), 505.
  4. Strafford, B. W., Van Der Steen, P., Davids, K., & Stone, J. A. (2018). Parkour as a donor sport for athletic development in youth team sports: insights through an ecological dynamics lens. Sports medicine-open, 4(1), 1-6.

Michael Zweifel

Master of Education (M.S.) in Kinesiology, University of Texas at Tyler

  • Owner of Building Better Athletes
  • Multiple Publications in Scientific Journals
  • NCAA All-Time Leader in Career Reception (463)