How Important is Play?

By Brian Grasso

A common misconception within the North American youth sporting world is the concept of ‘play’ for conditioning purposes. All too often, well intentioned youth sport coaches or trainers follow the leads established by the elite members of there respective sports and configure training programs and sessions into hard-droving or ‘endless repetitions of one exercise’ type affairs. It cannot be overstated enough how much this practice is counterproductive and impeding to the optimal development of young athletes. Let’s examine that from a variety of perspectives -

Mental – Young athletes are young CHILDREN. They do not posses the attention span to concentrate on one athletic skill for a prolonged period of time. Understanding this concept is paramount for coaches, trainers and parents – once a child becomes bored with a movement, they will inherently become frustrated and careless. This will lead to poor execution and incorrect form. Incorrect form can lead to acute or chronic injury and repetitive movements involving poor execution will inhibit potential development. Remember, it is all-encompassing athletic skill that leads to proficiency in single sports – not specialization.

Emotional – Young athletes require constant POSITIVE and CONSTRUCTIVE feedback from there coaches. Pulling a ‘Lombardi’ and chastising young athletes for poor performance, bad behavior or incorrect exercise execution is not conducive to optimal development. Children learn, develop and grow when they are immersed in a positive and uplifting environment. I am not suggesting for even an instance that you remove discipline or respect from the equation, but never confuse discipline and respect with fear and loathing – a child fearing the repercussions of a poor performance is NOT useful within the concepts of optimal athletic development. Conversely, a child knowing that they will be supported and nurtured after a poor performance and given every chance to improve IS perfect within the concepts of athletic development. One thing worth stating is too never forget how loud non-verbal communication can be in the ears of a young athlete. Being forced to reproduce the same drill over and over again in order to achieve ‘perfection’ will often feel like a punishment, even if that wasn’t your intension.

Physical – All great sports technicians were great athletes first. You simply cannot become a world-class baseball player, for instance without acquiring superior ATHLETIC skill. Having said that, it is the job of every youth sporting coach, parent and trainer to ensure that young athletes are involved in as much diversification as possible. This could mean playing several sports throughout the year rather than just concentrating on one or two. It could also mean that coaches diversify there practice schedules by adding cross training concepts into the mix. DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE – immersing a young athlete into one sport will NOT produce world-class champions.

By using the concept of ‘play’, practices can be transformed into fun and enjoyable experiences for young athletes and also serve to help optimally develop their athletic skills. Never discredit the benefits of very basic ‘game oriented’ activities. Take the game of tag as an example. A schoolyard game that doesn’t offer any real athletic development or conditioning benefits to a young athlete… or does it -

  1. Starts and stops
  2. Acceleration
  3. Top speed
  4. Agility (change of direction)
  5. Tactical cognitions (developing a strategy so as not to get caught)

Here is a short list of some other games that coaches and trainers should consider when developing a training program for a youth sporting team –

  1. Team Tag
  2. Tug-of-War
  3. Single Leg Tug-Of-War
  4. Wheel Barrel Races
  5. Partner Jumping Races