Flow, Learning, and Youth Sports

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2014.

During the summer when I was in middle school, I walked to a halfcourt gym near my house and played basketball for as long as there were other children to play against. On some days, when the competition was good, I would play for three to four hours without realizing it, my only sense of time coming from my grumbling stomach as lunch time approached and passed. During these games, I played against a wide spectrum of different players; playing against older and bigger players forced me to learn new shots, similar to those that the San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker uses around the basket. Playing against smaller players forced me to work on my quickness to protect the ball. When I was the best player there, I would challenge younger children and play with a disadvantage, playing one against two or shooting only shots outside the key.

Nobody forced me to play. I did not have an appointment with a trainer, nor did I have a scheduled practice with my team. I made up the rules, often with other children, whether they were official or unofficial. These days in the gym were not considered practice because I did not engage in typical practice activities. I played. Occasionally, I had to stand around and watch a game, but that was only if I lost, and there were others waiting to play. Standing around did not dampen my enjoyment; it stoked my desire not to lose again when I returned to the court.

Whereas my play may not have been considered a practice activity, I learned more during those games than I did in my actual practices. At practice, we generally repeated things that we had learned already, whether uncontested layups or 5v0 offense. Our practices lacked the variety and challenges that I found in the summer pickup games. Based on the thesis of Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, the same things that made the pickup games unlike practice were the very things that created the best conditions for learning.

Kotler argued that the best environment for learning is a flow experience. “A flow experience is one that requires complete involvement in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Kotler, 2013; p. 20). The pickup games created this timeless, self-initiated, challenging environment, whereas most practices failed in these respects. Practices focused on repeating the same things over and over, but each game, each opponent, each day during the summer presented new challenges and new opportunities for learning. Through this play, my skills developed, and I improved although that was not the explicit reason for playing. I played because that is what I wanted to do. It was fun.

My experience in the pickup games resembled that of those participating in action and adventure sports, the subject of Superman. Kotler wrote, “[Skateboarder Danny] Way doesn’t skate to break records or win championships. He skates. Period” (p. 6). Way, and others, skate for the sake of skateboarding; they are immersed completely in the activity. My pickup games had the same effect; there were no trophies or championships. Just playing.

When I was on vacation in Barcelona, I walked past two skateparks filled with teenagers. There was no adult. Nobody told the children what to do or how to behave. The children were practicing, but not in the way that children practice skills in a sports practice. Their practice was self-initiated. They watched other children, and tried to copy or surpass them. “In action and adventure sports, creativity is always the point,” (Kotler, 2013; p. 143). When creativity is the point, it is easy to lose oneself in the activity and practice for hours. The children at the skatepark were like me on the basketball court, free to experiment, challenge oneself by imitating the best moves of others, and decide the length, duration, and intensity of the activity without any external influences except the possibility of good-natured peer pressure to push oneself or to play one more game.

What is the point of a youth sports practice or organized sports in general? Why do children (or their parents) sign up to play? If creativity is the point of action and adventure sports, what is the point of organized leagues? Whatever that point is, are we achieving it?

In Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus argued that music is “a technology, refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow,” (2012; p. 112). We could argue that sports were refined and developed for the same reason. Originally, sports derived from activities important for survival, but the sports of today are far removed from the survival of our species or the propagation of our genes. At their core, we play sports to stretch our limits, to experience flow. Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi, the godfather of flow, wrote, “The best moments in our lives are not passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (1990; p. 3). Sport, like music, creates an optimal environment for one to stretch him or herself to the limits voluntarily.

If sports have been refined and developed to maximize flow experiences, it can be argued that the purpose of participating in sports and the best environment for learning sports skills are the same. Therefore to increase physical activity, develop better motor skills, or compete at higher competitive levels, we need to create more flow experiences for participants.

By their very nature, sports are designed to stretch performers to their limits. Our use of weight classes, age divisions, and other modifications of sports are strategies to create conditions for flow experiences. These modifications are designed to create more equitable competition, as the ideal disparity between current skill level and the challenge of the activity is 4% (Marcus, 2012). One reason that individual sports (running, cycling, golf, tennis) tend to sustain participation longer than team sports is the same reason for the increased participation in action and adventure sports: People participate for the sake of participation, not for trophies, and they can contrast their performances to their previous performances to measure improvement rather than measuring themselves against others. Regardless of their individual abilities or skills, they can stretch themselves without worrying about the other participants or an opponent.

Kotler added,“What’s painfully ironic here is that flow is a radical and alternative path to mastery only because we have decided that play – an activity fundamental to survival, tied to the greatest neurochemical rewards the brain can produce, and flat out necessary for achieving peak performance, creative brilliance, and overall life satisfaction – is a waste of time for adults, (p. 162).

Unfortunately, play is disappearing from the childhood experience as well. Coaches in nearly every sport question the skill level of children and teens in their sport, and the answer tends to be an increased need for more structured practice. However, how did they learn? How will these children learn best? I learned many of my most important sports lessons in unstructured play, where I could spend an entire day playing pick-up basketball games and leave the gym only because it closed, with no concept of the time. It is no surprise that I developed a much greater skill level in basketball, a sport that I played in pick-up games almost daily, than in soccer, a sport that we never played outside of practice.

If flow is the answer to skill development, as Kostler postulated, we need to re-think the youth sports experience and give back the games to the children, much as the skatepark has given children freedom to explore and find their flow experiences.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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