Potential Story: Keep the PLAY in sports activities

I’m sure you’ve seen it before, or at least heard about it.  It’s a Saturday morning in the Spring, and moms and dads are packing travel bags with sports gear and drinks and sandwiches for later snacks.  They are coordinating who will take which child to which sport and get to watch what game. All week, they’ve been running to this practice or that practice all the while trying to coordinate work schedules and practice schedules with homework and family meals which sometimes happen to be nothing more than running through a drive through.

Are you a parent who insists on having your child involved in one or more sports?  Do you emphasize fun over winning or do you stress refinement of skills rather than playing for the pure joy of playing?  Are you the kind of parent who strongly suggests that your child play a sport and perfect his/her skill in order to try to get a scholarship for college?  Are you a “bad parent” for pushing or not pushing when it comes to sports?

Parents choose sports for their children for many reasons.  Obviously, the top reasons are usually for the physical and social benefits:  increased strength and stamina, better body shape increased agility, help burn calories and shed extra pounds, exercise, psychological benefits, build planning and analytical skills, increase concentration, boost confidence, and build leadership and team skills.  Perhaps a parent was a star athlete in his/her school years and is hopeful that his/her child will pursue the same sport and goals, but we have to remember that each child is an individual with his/her own likes and dislikes.  Offer them a sport and if they say “yes”, then go for it!  The experience will teach them several good life lessons:  how to follow and obey game rules, how to listen to directions from a coach and how to work together with others to reach a common goal.  Research shows that sports improve Math skills and helps them increase focus.  Playing a sport exposes children to winning and losing and teaches them to accept both successes and failures with a positive spirit.  The key thing to remember, however, if you want your child to excel is to keep the fun of PLAY at the focus.  The experience will help them determine if it’s something they want to continue to pursue in later years.  

In the continued studies on PLAY, it is alarming to this author that I find it to be continually disappearing among our school establishments and sadly even in our homes.  Schools continue to cut down recess time and often when a child misbehaves in the classroom, “recess” is the first thing suspended or taken away.  Our culture emphasizes “healthy” eating habits and changes lunches to lower fat and calorie content (sometimes stripping growing bodies of what they need – remember EVERY child develops differently!), yet sell cookie dough for fundraising to supplement budget cuts from the state and local governments.  A child that has ADD may act out in class because he can’t sit still and then lose the playtime in which he can expend that extra energy in free play and therefore compounding the problem when class learning time resumes.  With all the focus on test scores, how is it expected that a child can focus on learning and performing on a test when they are hungry from lack of calorie intake during a growth spurt or still has “ants in the pants” because of the lack of freeplay time to expend that excess energy?

In the world of sports, we can find similar “bad” practices.  Deliberate practice is becoming increasingly emphasized over PLAY.   So how’s that working for us?  Deliberate practice is defined as this:   the focused improvement through repetitive activity, continual feedback and correction, and the delay of immediate gratification in pursuit of long term goals.

We have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect” and likely already passed that on to our own children.  And that part is true.  There is a direct connection between many hours of deliberate practice and performance level, but what often gets lost is the 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.”

Games that are “regulated by age-adapted rules”… do you remember “do-overs”?  How fun were they?  If you miss a basket in basketball and you shout, “Do-over!”, you then shoot again and you continued playing.  Think about how that compares to an overly structured practice where a coach may be barking orders rather than letting kids play.   When sports become more work than play, a child may struggle and then eventually drop out.  

At the core of great athletes is the burning passion and love of the game.  When you love a sport, you will often be naturally motivated to make yourself better at it.  Good coaches can foster this love and offer feedback as one develops skills, but the flame will be fueled more by the child than by the coach.  It’s the love of the game that will set up a player up mentally to engage in deliberate practice later on.  If we focus on deliberate practice and the pursuit of long term success too early, we could be setting our kids up for burnout and could potentially inadvertently encouraging  them to want to cheat in order to gain the fame and social identity that are tied to championship winning.  So in order to avoid this, let’s not forget to focus on PLAY.

PLAY of multiple sports will be useful to multiple muscle groups helping to develop agility and balance.  And perhaps most importantly PLAY stimulate brain development.  Hmmm….sounds like that would likely help test scores, right?  PLAY inspires thinking and adaptation.  It promotes creative problem solving and conflict resolution.  It accelerates the growth of the brain centers that regulate emotion and control both attention and behavior.  PLAY sounds HEALTHY, doesn’t it?  If allowed to PLAY, children will often create their own games and their own rules and develop skills not only needed for sports, but for every aspect of lie.

So if we know so much about PLAY, then how and why do we lose that focus?  Well, Adults and Children see things differently.  As an adult, we focus on the long term while children often focus on the immediate.  Who hasn’t had a child to beg you to tell them their secret surprise simply because they couldn’t wait until later to find out?  As parents, we often have long term goals set for our children:  saving for college and helping the study to get good grades to go to college; helping them develop into responsible adults.   And while, yes as responsible parents, we want to focus on those things, we can’t forget that our kids are still kids and look at things in the “here and now”.  Got $10,000 saved for college already?  Great!  But your son or daughter will likely be more happy knowing that they have saved $10 or $20 – enough to buy the new Transformer or Barbie toy they’ve been wanting.  Long term.  Short term.  There’s nothing wrong with either.

But because as adults and looking at those long term goals, parents can often look down upon coaches who roll a ball out and say “go play.”  Some parents will get angry when a coach sits quietly on the bench and lets the kids work through their own problems, or when they don’t teach about the “position” they are to be playing (but the reality is that they need to be old enough to UNDERSTAND positioning).  Again, parents get caught up in the long term goal, instead of realizing that the coach is fostering the development.  Children are actually learning as they discover through play and gaining answers rather than being given answers.  Isn’t that a better way to learn?  The coach will give them ideas during practice, but then lets them develop skill, creativity and critical thinking during the game.  Yet many don’t realize this because everything “feels” like it is inhibiting development instead of promoting it, so we get in the habit of fussing for practice, practice, practice instead of allowing them play.  We want to tell them what to do and when to do and have the false believe that just by merely playing the game they will fall in love with the game and want to pursue it further.  But when playing is no longer “playful” and fun, it will result in unhappiness toward the sports and perhaps all sports.

The trend is that we measure development through the outcome of games.  The outcomes are how we measure success in the adult world and in the end, we take away play and substitute work, believing that is the path to performance.  Anyone know a “work-a-holic” who never takes time for vacation and rest in order to enjoy the life he or she is living?

The good news, however, is that parents don’t want their kids to make the same mistakes they did.  We regret the things we didn’t do, the sports we didn’t pursue, the talent we didn’t develop.  And while it is hard to put aside the things we value, to ignore the “great futures” we see for our little athletes, we are learning to allow them to focus on the present.  Don’t force them into a sport, but let them PLAY.  Remember this:  they best athletes play sports, they don’t work them, they PLAY them and truly enjoy them.