The Power of Play: 3 Tips

tony_alva_dogtown_and_z-boys_002I spent last week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, giving a few talks. It was big fun on a lot of levels. For one, the Olympic team is in good hands–as proven by the medal-haul of Vancouver. For another, the coaches are a friendly, hard-working, and deeply knowledgeable bunch. (The cafeteria food’s not too bad, either.)

The big surprise of my visit was this: most Olympic coaches want to coach their athletes less. A lot less. They want fewer structured drills, and more invented games–particularly for younger athletes. Fewer circumscribed workouts, and more intensive play. Less work, more fun.

To conventional thinking, this discovery ranks as a fairly big surprise. Free time? Play? Aren’t coaches supposed to, you know, coach? It’s a bit like attending a gardening convention and discovering that everyone is trying to figure out how to grow dandelions.

But that’s exactly what they’re doing, and here’s why. Look beneath any talent hotbed, and you’ll find simple, intense, player-invented games. Venice Beach skateboarders riding inside an empty swimming pool, Brazilian soccer players on the futbol de salao court, cricketer Don Bradman learning to hit by bouncing a golf ball off a dented water tank, or baseball players trying to hit a flying yogurt lid — neurally speaking, it’s all the same story. A small, simple, concentrated game controlled and played by the kids. They play when they want. They get tons of reps. They create ladders of competition, always reaching upward. They get obsessed. They combine deep practice with the power of identity to earn myelin in excelsis; they grow superfast neural broadband.

(BTW, this all makes good evolutionary sense, as this article in the new Atlantic magazine on the power of play points out.)

[Play] seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more  flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

So the question is, how do we help make that kind of play happen? A lot depends on the culture, of course — with the right set of motivational signals, even multiplication tables can be an addictive sport. Here are a few interesting ideas that came out of the discussion — useful tips for growing dandelions in any sports or education culture.

  • Use Ritual:  Most practice sessions begin when the coach tells players to warm up, or a school bell rings. Why not have a few ritualistic games that can be played as the players arrive? U.S.A. Volleyball coach John Kessel (who writes a marvelous blog) has created a culture of play where his arriving players dig, set, and spike against a stripe drawn at net height. As more players arrive, more join in — and hopefully take the game home with them.
  • The Google Method: Google encourages its employees to spend 15 percent of their working hours pursuing their own projects. Why shouldn’t coaches do the same?  Putting athletes in charge of their workouts — for instance, asking them to design a handful of small games — would increase their investment in practice, and avoid the workaday, clock-punching mentality that coaches and teachers dread.
  • Build in Open Time: These invented games happen on the margins; in the loose, unstructured times before and after practice, when kids are doing that crucial work of fooling around. Smart coaches should leave out the equipment, walk away, and watch what happens.

In Curacao, I remember watching baseball players feverishly playing a strange little game where every hitter had to bunt the ball and race around the bases. I asked the coach, Norval Fayenete, what they were doing, and he smiled.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But whatever it is, it’s working.”

What works for you?

PS — This idea can be summed up in a single golden quote:  “To systematize is to sterilize” —  from Common Sense About Soccer, a long out-of-print book by Nils Middelboe. Read more about how different nations are growing soccer talent here. (Big thanks to Mr. Kessel for the tip.)