No matter what team you are rooting for during major sporting events, like last Sunday's Super Bowl, and even if you don't personally care much about sports at all, it's hard to deny the value and importance our culture places on sports and athletes. Though it's still only the beginning of February, many Aidan families are now thinking about signing their children up for organized sports in the spring and summer months.
From my observation, the best athletes PLAY sports, they don't work them. John O'Sullivan, founder of The Changing Game Project and author of the best-selling book, Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids , explains that when sports become more work than play, athletes struggle, and if they cannot get back to playing instead of working, they eventually drop out. From youth to the pros, when the fun goes, performance is soon to follow.
So how do families guide their child into the world of sports and athletics? What is the role of play in training and advancement of aspiring young players to the next level? Should they be practicing or playing sports? If they do both, is one more important than the other?
For children 10 and under, it's helpful to encourage children to PLAY sports, not practice sports. To clarify, deliberate practice can be defined as "the focused improvement through repetitive activity, continual feedback and correction, and the delay of immediate gratification in pursuit of long term goals." There is no question that expert performers accumulate many hours of deliberate practice. What gets lost in the focus on practice is the massive 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 for maximum enjoyment."
So why is deliberate play so critical to reinforce over deliberate practice in childhood? First, as O'Sullivan explains, play instills a love of the game and makes it fun, while practice often does not. Instilling the love of the game early on sets up a player mentally to engage in deliberate practice later on. Second, an early focus on deliberate practice instead of playing for the love of the game can cause motivation to become extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. Third, and most importantly, play stimulates brain development. It hastens the growth of the brain centers that regulate emotion and control both attention and behavior. Play inspires cognitive flexibility, promoting creative problem solving, and conflict resolution.
As our children are introduced to the exciting world of organized physical sports and activities, let's remember to keep it FUN!