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.)

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8 Responses to “The Power of Play: 3 Tips”

  1. Ken Vick says:

    Really enjoyed hearing you speak. Your message is very timely. Always exciting to consider how we can help young athletes excel. It was interesting to hear how you saw that while these talent hotbeds “specialized” early, many still incorporated a culture that included a variety of “non-specialized” activities.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Ken — really appreciate that. Maybe the key is that successful hotbeds specialize in their motivation (their identity), but not in their training, which stayed varied, interesting, and built a broad base of whole-body skills. Seems like in the states we tend to do the reverse.

  3. Paul Clarke says:

    Hi Dan, finally found your site!! Read an article by you about the tennis academy outside Moscow last year and was fascinated but until I read a blog post from Vern Gambetta your name escaped me. Lots of great reading on the site…enough to keep me occupied for hours…Keep up the great work and best of luck!!

  4. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Paul — that makes my day. (That Coach Gambetta is a smart guy, isn’t he?) Best, Dan

  5. Dale Kirby says:

    This blog is my mood-enhancing drug of choice–always something inspiring here.

    Are there good techniques to employ for creative writing increases in quantity and quality?

    I’m reading Bounce by Syed and enjoying it greatly. It repeats many of the Talent Code ideas and examples but is useful in reminding oneself of the principles.


  6. Andy says:

    This post reminded me of a story I read several years ago about how the ’82 Brewers (AL Champions) had a game they invented called “flip” that the used to play amongst themselves.

    Here is a link to the story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.,2493516

  7. Dan,

    Thank you for the excellent quality of both your book and this blog.

    After having read your book, I spent far more time evaluating how to incorporate the principles into our training process. This post has unquestionably helped to further clarify and turn the concepts into practices.

    Best regards,
    Carson Boddicker

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hey Andy, Great stuff — I remember that Series so well — I was a huge Cards fan, and the Brewers were my nemesis (nemeses?) — Young, Thomas, Vuckovich — I’m glad to know that they had a secret weapon beyond their facial hair. All best, Dan

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