Playing is Important for Young Athletes

By Nancy Justis, Iowa Youth Sports Initiative

Despite the growth of "elite" youth sports teams and organizations, experts note this system of sport is not play.

What? Kids don't play nearly as much as they used to?

According to Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and the author of "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life."

"If it's not free, it's not play," he was quoted as saying in a March 19 article in STACK..

The author of the article, Brandon Hall, STACK's content director, wrote "Adults have increasingly steered children toward formalized activities that do not really qualify as play ... play teaches our children crucial life skills that cannot be replicated elsewhere."

He notes a 2017 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that outlines how play enhances creativity, imagination, dexterity, boldness, teamwork and stress-management skills, confidence, conflict resolution, decision-making and problem-solving skills, and learning behaviors.

We all repeat often the benefits of playing sports, so aren't all of the above learned in competitive, elite sports? Some — maybe.

Gray lists five criteria that are essential to play:

*It is self-chosen and self-directed.

"It's that very responsibility that makes play such an important method for developing life skills ... the kid must figure things out on their own. They learn how to choose their own activity, how to take initiative, how to create their own rules, how to change rules as they go along, how to negotiate with one another."

A study from the University of Colorado found children who spent more time in less structured activities develop better "self-directed executive function" — a skill that centers around being able to set your own goals and take action. A 2014 University of Texas study found college students who had spent their youth splitting equal time between organized and "pickup" sports were more creative than their peers who didn't.

*Free play is done for its own sake, not for an outside reward.

There has been plenty of debate about kids receiving medals and trophies for organized play. Free play is done because kids want to play.

"Play is intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically-motived," Gray said. "As soon as you get adults involved, it's all about winning and losing and trophies and championships ... if that becomes the concern, you're going to want to specialize in a sport."

By getting rid of rewards, outside pressure and judgment, an environment is created where kids are naturally more creative. When no one is judging you, you have freedom to try things you wouldn't otherwise.

*It's always structured.

Counterintuitive? No. Gray said even the most bizarre or chaotic play still has some type of rules or objective.

"There's no such thing as unstructured play ... (it's) always structured by the players themselves ... (it's how kids) create an organized activity."

Inventing, testing and implementing rules or guidelines requires critical thinking and interpersonal skills, which is lost in more organized activities.

*It always has an element of imagination.

Gray said "there's always a sense in which you are stepping out of the real world ... anything can happen ... it ultimately doesn't count. It's a practice world, a simulation world, it's a place to try things out ... We can think about possibilities that aren't actually present, we can invent new things, we can think about different realities ... Play's elements of imagination and self-direction also exclude many screen-based activities from qualifying as play."

*It's conducted in a very alert frame of mind, one that's not overly stressful.

Certain free play shows kids deliberately exposing themselves to a certain amount of stress or fear, but the freedom to quit at anytime ensures no more than they can handle. No fear of failure keeps stress levels low. The opportunity to change the game keeps players interested.

"You can't be mentally passive in play," Gray said. "Because you are following rules, because the means are more important than the ends."

Even Pope Francis warned in a Huffington Post article in 2015 of "the 'perversion' of sports and the exploitation of athletes by the pursuit of success at any cost ... He believes sports should be play and are meant to be fun for all children. His message counters one where in the United States the passion to win leads some coaches to turn youth sports into adult-driven work."

How do we return to the days when kids played free? We probably can't totally. But a U.S. Soccer pamphlet, "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States," notes "Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player's development by organizing less and allowing the players to do more. Set up a game and let the kids play. Keep most of your comments for before and after practice and during water breaks."

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute and author of "Game On: the All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children," was quoted in a Bloomberg article: "Turn over a chunk of your practice, or maybe turn over an entire practice, to the kids themselves and give them simple instructions."

Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Solutions and the founder of Iowa Youth Sports Initiative.