Diversifying Developmental Sporting Experiences

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Parents and coaches seek a formula or recipe for developing athletic (or educational) excellence, but no formula exists. Every child is different. We read the stories of those who have accomplished great victories and attempt to replicate their paths, but these stories often simplify a complex topic to a single attribution. 

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, K. Anders Ericsson argued that deliberate practice differentiates the elite and the non-elite. Parents and coaches have cited Ericsson’s research to justify early specialization and early professional training (i.e. deliberate practice) to jump start the road to excellence, but Peak simplified a complex topic and ignored evidence or research that conflicted with its message. 

Peak cited the early play experiences of hockey great Mario Lemieux to support its argument against natural or innate talent. “Although I don’t know of any studies that look at the value of this sort of play practice, it seems likely that these children were taking their first steps down the path of expertise.” Jean Cote and colleagues have published numerous studies about this exact type of “play practice”, which they named “deliberate play”. Cote and colleagues have suggested that development is more complex than deliberate practice, and argued against early specialization and early professional training in favor of diverse sporting experiences in early childhood.

Conditions of Children’s Talent Development in Sport introduced a spectrum of early childhood activities, each of which has value and importance in the development of motor and sports skills. Cote’s deliberate play lies on one end of the spectrum. “Deliberate play involves early developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.” Ericsson’s deliberate practice, defined as practice requiring great effort, generating no immediate rewards, and motivated by the goal of improving a specific aspect of performance, is at the other end. Deliberate play is child-initiated and participant-regulated, whereas deliberate practice occurs with a coach or teacher who designs the drills and provides the feedback. 

Between deliberate play and deliberate practice are adult-initiated play practice and organized competition, and child-initiated spontaneous practice. Play practice maintains the fun and game play of deliberate play, but adults organize the activity with the intention to improve performance. Organized competition provides the high concentration and effort of deliberate practice, but the games are not structured to improve specific aspects of performance, and the effort is generally enjoyable. Spontaneous practice occurs informally and is child-initiated as with deliberate play, but has the specific goal of improving performance, as with deliberate practice. Cote and colleagues5 suggested that “the different social contexts of the various play and practice activities fulfill different needs in children’s current and future involvement in sport.”

In today’s youth sports environment, play practice, organized competitions, and deliberate practice dominate, and deliberate play and spontaneous practice have all but disappeared. When adults organize the sporting activities, the range of activities narrows. Coaches or parents guide children toward the “right way”, which is based on adult perspectives. Adults discourage exploration and imagination, and direct and instruct children toward the desired technique or tactic. Adult-initiated activities emphasize competition and results, whereas child-initiated activities emphasize inclusion, development, and fun. 

As an example, in organized sports leagues, birthdates separate divisions; a child born on December 31 is placed in a different division than one born on January 1 despite being born hours apart. I played in a different soccer division than the majority of my classmates because the cutoff date for schools (September 1) and sports leagues (January 1) differed. On the playground, in deliberate play activities at recess, I played with and against my classmates because we created the games; I did not play with children in a different grade because I had a different birth year. 

In child-led activities, children play with younger and older children. The rules often are adapted for each individual based on skill or size. When playing stickball in a dirt field, children may pitch faster to the older children, but slower and from a shorter distance against a younger or less-skilled child. These rules are not pre-determined for the sake of fairness or competitive equality by administrators in an office, as with adult-led activities, but are adapted in the moment by the children to make the game more competitive. The children’s rule adaptations not only maintain the competitiveness and enhance their skill development, but improve creativity, self-regulation, motivation, and more. 

Cote and colleagues categorize these activities in terms of the learning environments that they create. Deliberate practice is rational learning because of the logic and order in an adult-led practice. Play practice is emotional learning because it promotes fun and enjoyment. Spontaneous practice is informal learning because the child has the desire to improve through the self-initiated and self-regulated practice. Deliberate play is creative learning because the child designs the environment. Each learning environment plays a role in development, especially during early childhood, and ignoring any environment may be detrimental. 

When parents and coaches narrow the child’s focus to deliberate practice, the child may suffer from emotional burnout and quit, which is the extreme negative consequence. Beyond quitting, the rational learning may not improve the player’s creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, and the explicit learning environment may lead to skills that break down under pressure. 

On the other hand, a child who engages solely in deliberate play may develop poor technique due to the lack of instruction and/or insufficient repetitions. A child who engages only in spontaneous practice may develop poor technique, and may not transfer the practice from the individual, isolated context to the more social, game context. Play practice may not lead to emotional burnout because the goal is to create fun and enjoyment, but the child may lack sufficient repetitions of important skills, and the activities may limit the child to certain solutions, thereby reducing creativity and problem-solving skills. 

The best developmental environment is one that affords children the time and opportunity to participate in each activity. In our current competition-focused, year-round sports environment, children often miss out on spontaneous practice and deliberate play. The blame falls on the children and technology, but in the average child’s over-scheduled life, when does he or she have time to practice spontaneously or to gather a group of children in the neighborhood for street hockey or stickball? By rushing into early specialization, adult-initiated activities and professionalized training, there is a time cost that limits or eliminates the opportunity to engage in other activities, and ultimately narrows the child’s development unnecessarily. One activity is not necessarily better than the others; learning to practice with concentration and effort, to win, to self-regulate, to include others, to explore, to try new things, to expand one’s skills, and more are valid and important reasons for sports participation. Developmentally, a balance of activities is best. 

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