Play is Learning

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.16 and Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 7.

There are two distinct voices within coaching and literature. On one end of the spectrum, there is deliberate practice. On the other end of the spectrum, there is play. On Twitter, professor Dave Collins wrote: “Play on its own is important, but surely so too is learning.” This is a problem. Play is learning; it may not be sufficient to reach an expert performance, and the best learning environments support play and build upon the learning that occurs through play, but there is no denying that learning occurs through play. 

For generations, we learned through play. At TED, evolutionary anthropologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo said: “Play is not just child’s games…play is foundational for building relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity: diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, and diversity of connections. When you watch bonobo play, you are seeing the evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.”

The last few decades have reduced opportunities for play in a rush to promote more serious and structured activities that supposedly promote success. During those same decades, rates of attention deficit disorder and similar disorders (Nyarko et al., 2017), obesity (Cunningham et al., 2014), and depression and other mental illnesses (Olfson et al., 2014) have increased. Correlation does not equal causation, but there is evidence that exercise improves behavior and academic performance in those diagnosed with ADHD (Pontifex et al., 2013), reduces symptoms of depression (Barclay et al., 2014), and fights obesity. 

Play is a significant contributor to a child’s cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development (Blasi et al., 2002). Play is essential for healthy brain development, increases physical activity levels in children, develops social and decision-making skills, and enables exploration and discovery of interests (Ginsburg, 2007). “Play is very much an activity of the mind….Engagement in play involves the mind in an active process as a child investigates, explores, and inquires during play” (Blasi et al., 2002). 

Traditionally, the learning process for almost any skill started with play. I played basketball for years before I was coached. I and my friends developed numerous skills through our recess games. By the time that we had a coach, we could dribble, shoot, pass, make layups, and more. We knew the basic concepts. We had not perfected these skills, and some were better than others, but we had developed a good foundation. More importantly, we were motivated. We tried out for the school team of our own volition, whereas my parents signed me up for soccer when I was young. 

I never played soccer or touched a soccer ball before my first organized practice. Everything I learned about soccer was through an organized practice or drill. I enjoyed soccer, and over the years I improved, but not in the same way that I loved basketball or improved in basketball. After eight years of organized soccer, my skills were rudimentary; the coaching, exposure to the game, lack of individual practice, lack of pickup games, and more influenced the differences between my development in basketball and soccer, but the initial entry into the sports is at least partially responsible for the differences. I started basketball through play and it was natural for me to search for pickup games or to practice on my own; I started soccer in an organized environment with a schedule of practices and games, and it was less evident for me to practice on my own or search for pickup games. My interest and motivation for basketball was greater, and consequently, I improved more, developed better skills, practiced more, and played the game better. 

Development is multifactorial, but the initial activities certainly set up a different path in each sport, and the outcomes were somewhat predictable, at least to someone who values play. For someone who believes that play is frivolous or unimportant, the outcomes are surprising or attributable to other factors, such as total hours of engagement. The greater exposure to basketball is a factor, and likely the greatest factor, but it is influenced by the initial opportunities to play and find my passion for the game on my own. I chose basketball; I never chose soccer or baseball, and despite more years of organized practices and games, my skills in baseball and soccer were never as advanced as they were in basketball. 

Ericsson et al. (1993) wrote that conditions for optimal learning required: (1) Motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve performance; (2) the task to take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners; (3) immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results; and (4) repeatedly performing the same or similar tasks. Deliberate practice, then, is effortful, designed specifically to improve performance, requires immediate feedback, and is repetitive (Ericsson et al., 1993).

To a large degree, the first condition is a prerequisite for the following three, but it is the condition that is ignored most often. Ericsson wrote that one must have passion for the activity before engaging in deliberate practice; this is mentioned rarely when discussing his work, but may be the most important point. When a player lacks motivation, the repetitions, carefully designed practices, and feedback will not amount to much. As an example, when I contemplate a major change to a player’s shooting technique, my first consideration is the player’s motivation; will the player invest the time, effort, and concentration required to stabilize the change? If not, why bother? Essentially, I am asking if the player has the motivation to engage in deliberate practice.

Whereas deliberate practice is essential in a situation such as changing a player’s shooting technique, play includes three of the four conditions of optimal learning, at least within sport (and this is an issue with transferring Ericsson’s work to sports, as his research was on chess and violin, which differ from sports such as basketball). 

In play, there is motivation to continue; in fact, that is a key identifier of play. Play can involve great effort; when I played pickup games, my play was at least as effortful as a typical practice. In a sport such as basketball, there is immediate knowledge of results regardless of a coach’s presence. When I shoot, and I miss the shot, I know this immediately. This is knowledge of results. The only condition that play fails to meet is repetitiveness, as play involves repetition without repetition (Bernstein, 1967). Rather than repeating the same task identically, play involves numerous different attempts at a task; when I was young, and I shot in my front yard, I imagined different situations or playing against different defensive players; when I played pickup games, the different defenders forced new moves or shots. I may have performed 20 or 100 repetitions, but none was the same. 

Deliberate practice must be structured to improve specific aspects of performance. Mastering a specific piece of music for violin differs from playing basketball. Basketball is changing constantly and evolving; it is more like jazz, as David Thorpe titled his new book, than a symphony. Varying the repetitions through play may be more akin to deliberate practice than removing and isolating a skill, which is typically how we view deliberate practice. The pop science-y books have led to increased isolated training and early specialization, but these changes have negative repercussions. Early specialization and repetitive movements have been shown to lead to increased injury in athletes (Read et al., 2016); chess players do not lose a season due to carpal tunnel from moving the chess pieces too often at too young of an age. 

Ericsson and colleagues (1993) addressed play and described the differences between play and his definition of deliberate practice: “In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable (Ericsson et al., 1993). Not all learning occurs in this method. I have trained numerous players who enjoyed working out; in these sessions, the activities were structured, coach-led, specifically designed by a coach, and had a goal of improved performance. Because they enjoyed them, does it fail to meet Ericsson’s definition? Do we have to hate what we do in order to learn? I don’t believe so. 

The voices on the deliberate practice spectrum tend to describe play as frivolous. It may be fun or have social benefits, but it does not improve skill. I hear basketball coaches who say that practices should not be fun. Why not? Basketball is play. That does not mean that one cannot do drills or that fun has to be the most important goal of every second of practice, but why should avoiding fun purposely be a goal at all? 

If play is learning, skill improves through play. In a study of German national team soccer players, the national team players compared to amateurs engaged in more non-organized leisure football in childhood, more other sports in adolescence, later specialization, and more organized football only after age 22 (Hornig et al., 2016). They played more and specialized later. In Australian Rules Football, the total number of hours in invasion-game activities differentiated expert and non-expert decision makers, suggesting that it is the involvement in the activities, not their designated purposes, that differentiated the experts (Berry et al., 2008).

When I was young, I skied. I was not skiing to join a ski team. I skied for fun. It was play. The more often that I skied, the better I became. I challenged myself on harder and harder runs. When I fell, I had immediate knowledge of results that I did something wrong. I initiated the activity; I picked the runs. Despite the inherent fun, a full day of skiing, especially as I got older and went after moguls, was effortful. In a sense, the optimal conditions for learning described by Ericsson were present in my skiing, despite the absence of coaching and performance-related goals. It would be crazy to suggest that I did not learn as I progressed from the bunny slopes to black diamond runs with moguls. 

Deliberate practice is not wrong; drills are not wrong. Practice does not always have to be fun, and the goal is not necessarily to maximize fun. However, learning occurs through play. Fun is not bad. Drills are not the only way to learn. Play is not necessarily easy; play can be effortful. Often, play is more effortful because the enjoyment and inner drive to continue leads to more hours spent on the task.

Rather than looking at the clock every 10 minutes until a workout is finished, one plays until he or she decides it is enough or until the gym closes, which is when I left the gym during my high school years. I showed up just before the games started to get into the first game, and I left when they kicked us out of the gym. Nobody forced me. I played for fun, but I learned as much or more in these Sunday night pickup games against older players as I did in all of my practices and camps combined.

Play is learning, and many of our problems, whether societal or within sports, are due to our increasing dismissal of unstructured play as unimportant or frivolous. 

References

Barclay, T.H., Richards, S., Schoffstall, J., Magnuson, C., McPhee, C., Price, J., Aita, S., Anderson, A., Johnson, D., & Price, J. (2014). A pilot study on the effects of exercise on depression symptoms using levels of neurotransmitters and EEG as markers. European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 1(1), 30-35.

Bernstein, N.A. (1967). The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Pergamon Press; Oxford.

Berry, J., Abernethy, B., & Côté, J. (2008). The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 685-708.

Blasi, M., Hurwitz, S.C., & Hurwitz, S.C. (2002). For parents particularly: To be successful — Let them play!. Childhood Education, 79(2), 101-102.

Cunningham, S.A., Kramer, M.R., & Narayan, K.V. (2014). Incidence of childhood obesity in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(5), 403-411.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363-406.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Güllich, A. (2016). Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 96-105.

Nyarko, K.A., Grosse, S.D., Danielson, M.L., Holbrook, J.R., Visser, S.N., & Shapira, S.K. (2017). Treated prevalence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder increased from 2009 to 2015 among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

Olfson, M., Blanco, C., Wang, S., Laje, G., & Correll, C. U. (2014). National trends in the mental health care of children, adolescents, and adults by office-based physicians. JAMA psychiatry, 71(1), 81-90.

Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (2013). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Journal of pediatrics, 162(3), 543-551.

Read, P. J., Oliver, J. L., De Ste Croix, M. B., Myer, G. D., & Lloyd, R. S. (2016). The scientific foundations and associated injury risks of early soccer specialisation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(24), 2295-2302.

My 2017 Reading List

In the tradition of lists from 2014, 2015, and 2016, here is my reading list for 2017.

The Athletic Skills Model: Optimizing Talent Development Through Movement Education – Rene Wormhoudt

I admit that I have waited for this book for nearly 5 years and the authors are preaching to the choir. It is a very good book, but for a model, I would like a few more details. I like the book because it conforms to much of what I believe: early diversification, more focus on motor control, differential learning, and more. It is a good mix of the practical and theoretical.

Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work – Steven Kotler

I like Kotler’s The Rise of Superman better, but he does a good job of mixing stories with science. The book recommends everything from meditation to pharmacological aids in the pursuit of creativity and flow.

Now What? The Ongoing Pursuit of Improved Performance – Dan John

As I have written elsewhere, Dan John is my favorite writer in athletic development. Easy Strength is one of the books that I recommend the most. Now What summarizes many of his ideas from past books and provides some clear advice to make change. His wisdom is simple, yet profound.

Shakespeare the Coach – Ricin’s Charlesworth

An interesting look at the issues of coaching through the lens of Shakespeare.

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation – Thich Nhat Hanh

I just couldn’t get into this book.

Sports Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation: Integrating Medicine and Science for Performance Solutions – David Joyce and Daniel Lewindon

I did not read this book from cover to cover. I have skimmed specific chapters at specific times. It is a valuable resource to which I can refer when a player is injured, and I need some new ideas to assist the player with her rehab.

Comprehensive Strength and Conditioning: Physical Preparation for Sports Performance – Paul Gamble

I read this book to see if it would be a better book for the Introduction to Strength & Conditioning class that I taught. I preferred it to the text that we used. It is a good, easy to use guide for S&C.

Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United – Alex Ferguson

I generally am not a fan of coach’s autobiographies, but this starts strong before petering out a the end. The book has great insights into leadership and the management of the team.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future – Peter Thiel

An interesting look at business that has some cross over to sports, especially with the emphasis on principles instead of formulas.

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – Gerd Gigerenzer

A good explanation of the importance of rules of thumb or heuristics when faced with uncertainty.

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise – K. Anders Ericsson

I know virtually every coach recommends this book, but I found it somewhat disingenuous. I never heard Ericsson question Gladwell’s interpretation of his research until scientists such as Ross Tucker began to debate his research methods and conclusions. I also find it hard to believe that he has never heard of Jean Cote and Cote and colleagues’ research into deliberate play. There may be nuggets of value in the book, but these are the issues that stand out to me.

Confessions of an Imperfect Coach: An Experiment in Team Culture That Changed Everything – Kate Leavell

Leavell is a lacrosse coach, but the book is about coaching and team culture, not lacrosse. The big take away from the book is to read Energy Bus by Jon Gordon. There are some good parts, and some good reminders for coaches who are feeling bad or feeling like they are failing, but overall, the book rambles.

Additionally, I read several books by Simon Rich, finally finished Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, and thoroughly enjoyed Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid, which was my favorite book of the year.

 

 

An important reason to avoid 5v0 practice

A Story of Athletic Talent Development

Originally published in the March/April 2010 Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In grade school, everyone talked about the Morrison clan. At that time, they were four brothers (they added a little sister when we moved to high school) grouped between six grades, and each excelled athletically. He was the strongest, fastest child in his grade. Before I knew anything about competitive sports, my dad showed me their names in the box scores from local swimming events in the Sunday paper. Before I realized that soccer was a real sport – it was never on television, and I had never seen it played outside our recreational season – they played on a “competitive team.”

Three played Division I soccer, and one was a 1st Team All-American and professional player. They also played high school basketball (at least one was team MVP) and baseball (despite not playing Little League) and probably would have played football if it did not conflict with soccer. Since they were my only grade school friends who excelled in soccer (and swimming for that matter), we figured that they were born as good soccer players or their dad made them into good soccer players somehow.

Every town seems to have a similar family. In Sports Illustrated in February, Gary Smith detailed such a family from Grand Forks, North Dakota: the Lamoureux family. By now, the Lamoureuxes may be famous – the twin daughters, Jocelyne and Monique played for the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team at the Olympics. Their four older brothers are All-American or professional hockey players in their own right.

Smith recounts the typical story of athlete development. The story starts with parental support, as hockey is not a cheap sport to play with all the equipment to buy and team and rink fees to pay. Chauffeuring six children to hockey practice and games can be a full-time job, and none of the children can excel without that type of support to allow the children an opportunity to develop their talents.

Of course, when six children excel to such a degree, other parents get jealous. Rather than celebrate their achievements or learn from their experience, people criticize the parents. As Smith writes:

“There was only one way that many Lamoureuxes could play the game at that level of aggression and skill, some Grand Forkers grumbled: Those children had no choice, they were over-scheduled robots. Why, their father was planning to ship the boys to Russia and the girls to Winnipeg to master the game. He beat them if they didn’t play and work out hard went the wild rumors heard by the kids. He made them do drills and box each other in their basement.”

People said the same thing about the Morrisons. When other people succeed, those who are not as successful create excuses to explain their own lack of success and to knock down the successful. However, these comments show a lack of understanding of the talent development process. While there are some famous examples to the contrary – Pistol Pete Maravich, Jennifer Capriati, Todd Marinovich – pushy parents are not the way to develop talent. Successful people – in sports, school or business – are self-motivated and choose to engage in the activity for their own enjoyment and satisfaction.

Moreover, often the circumstances leading to excellence are lucky or pure happenstance. I do not remember why or how the Morrisons ended up on a swim team when they were so young. As I recall, he may have been the only one in my class with a pool in his backyard when we started first grade, so maybe that had something to do with it or maybe his mother or father was a swimmer (I never asked).

In the case of the Lamoureuxes, one reason for their athletic prowess was purely coincidental. In North Dakota, there are streams called coulees cut from the Ice Age. In 1987, a developer in Grand Forks knocked out a bank and created a 70×200-foot hole and filled it with water. The Lamoureuxes did not notice this on the next cul-de-sac when they moved into the neighborhood. However, as Smith explains:

One freak year the shallow coulee froze in late September, and a few other times at Halloween. But it almost always congealed by mid-November, a month or more before the local rinks opened, allowing the Lamoureuxes—who spent 20 hours a weekend at the coulee and another dozen during the week—to amass thousands more skating hours than their peers.

Recent books like Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers cite and support K. Anders Ericsson’s research into expert performance that has found that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Living around the corner from the coulee, something that occurred completely by chance, provided the young Lamoureuxes a giant advantage, and they made the most of their advantage by playing early and often on the ice.

While The Talent Code and Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence argue for more structured practice, in Developing Sport Expertise, Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas argue that deliberate play is as instrumental as structured practice, and this play counts toward the 10,000 hours needed for expert performance. They define 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 to maximize enjoyment.”

As Smith explains, the Lamoureuxes would engage in deliberate play for hours, all the while sharpening their skating and stick skills, as well as developing their game awareness.

“They’d bundle up in long johns, extra socks, sweatpants, snow pants, sweatshirts, winter jackets, bomber hats, two pairs of gloves and sometimes, at 20 or 30 below, when the prairie winds hurled a mix of snow and dirt that locals called snirt, in wool face masks that made them look like frosted fiends…

“The kids would launch practice shots at Phil, who’d begun goaltending in his diapers…Then they’d play free-for-all, a cacophony of chirps over big saves and takeaways, until someone shouted, “Sticks in the middle!” At that they’d fling their sticks into a heap, one boy wading into the pile with his wool hat pulled over his eyes, blindly grabbing two at a time and tossing one to either side again and again till none remained, divvying up the group into two teams.

“When they raced along the railroad ties girding the embankment on the Howes’ side, they were flying along the boards at the Montreal Forum. It was their Forum, no adult eyes on them, emboldening Phil to call out, “I’m Richter!” and Jacques to yelp, “I’m Messier!” and Pierre-Paul and Mario to turn into Leetch and Lemieux, and all of them to try the wriggles and whirls and between-the-legs sorcery they saw on TV.”

When we explain athletic success, these are the moments that we ignore. These days, everyone has a personal trainer and sports lessons. Around the same time that Smith wrote about the Lamoreuxes, Luke Winn wrote about University of Virginia star basketball player Sylvan Landesberg. Winn asks him about his trainers, as he had a “dribbling coach, a shooting coach, a weightlifting specialist and a boxing instructor,” in addition to his club-team coach and his high school coach. This is the modern-day way to develop a star athlete: surround him with more and more high-priced instructors.

However, regardless of the instructors and coaches, great athletes spring from a love of playing the game – they are not manufactured by specialty coaches.

“The first layer of the heart—that’s what the twins’ coach in high school, Gordie Stafford, would call that deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game that was being implanted at the coulee. That’s what no organized version of a sport could implant in the chest of a child, what no dynasty dad or minivanning mom could ever arrange. That’s what made the Lamoureuxes lucky.”

Talent development has more to do with playing hockey on a frozen pond in below-freezing weather than working with the right coach. A coach or trainer can augment a player’s development by giving him some technical tools, but without the intrinsic motivation and pure desire to play the game, the technical skills are insufficient. The great athletes develop the “deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game.”

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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