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.

Making sense of generational arguments about skill development

I don’t understand the following argument:

“Players from previous generations had more skill.”

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“Players from previous generations were three-sport athletes.”

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“Players from previous generations played more pickup games.”

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“Players need to specialize earlier and train privately with individual coaches to improve their skills.” Read more

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