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. 


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.

Motivation and skill development

When I work out individually with players, I seek their input: They decide on the skills that they need to improve, and often pick the drills. I want players to own their improvement rather than act like a robot following directions. When they know that I refuse to provide all the answers, they have to think about themselves and their skills. They have to plan their workouts. Hopefully this reflection adds to their overall development.

Today, at the end of a workout, I asked the two players to choose the final drill. One (P1) wanted to do something that she had seen in a video. The other (P2) clearly did not like the idea. 

The drill was simple; each player practiced a move against a stationary defender and attacked the basket where I half-defended their shots. Usually, I would turn the stationary defender into a live defender and play 1v1, and I could tell P2 preferred to go live. I went along with the dummy defense because (1) it was P1’s idea, and P2 was silent when we discussed what to do next; and (2) we are nursing some injuries, so at that point, I preferred a less intense drill. 

P2 got very little from the drill because she did not value the drill. P2 is an extremely intelligent player, and the only player who I have encouraged to become a coach. She often asks questions, and we have discussed my ideas. I imagine her frustration was due at least partially to playing for me, as she even ridiculed the initial instructions, saying the stationary defender was basically a cone or a chair. Her body language suggested an indifference (conversely, when we did full-speed pull-up shots, she went hard for the duration) that negated any value that she could have gleaned from the drill. 

P1 was motivated. When she made mistakes (travelled, had her shot blocked), she asked questions. She tried new things. She experimented. Despite the lack of true defense, she engaged with the activity. 

Ultimately, as much as we discuss practice design and best practices, the players’ motivation plays a greater role in improvement than our drills or instructions. P1 engaged with the drill, and P2 did not. P1 believed that the drill could help her improve, and P2 did not. P2’s attitude was not correct although her thinking aligned with mine. Ideally, regardless of whether or not a player agrees with the drill, she finds a way to take something from it. 

In this case, giving up control to the players worked for one player, but not the other, because they could not agree. In a normal situation, we would have ended with some 1v1 to engage P2, but we were pushing our time limits, and our injuries.

In Evolution of 180 Shooter: A 21st Century Guide, I attributed much of our skill and shooting development to this choice and motivation. By empowering players to make decisions and control their own practice, players are not in a hurry to leave. Almost every day, players stay after practice and shoot. I leave the gym; this is not to win points with me. They play shooting games or add some stationary ball handling because we never do stationary ball handling in practice. Often, the shooting is as much social as it is skill development. 

I do not hover. I do not correct. I may disagree with a drill or the shots they attempt, but my time is finished; this is their time. I am not going to tell them how to spend their time. Just because they stay for an extra 20 minutes does not mean that I coach for an extra 20 minutes. If they want my help, they know where I am or they can sign up on my door for an individual workout with me. I am available, but I do not want to interfere with their time, and turn their extra player-directed practice into more practice. I want them motivated to continue rather than escaping the gym quickly to avoid more. 

Sometimes, coaching does not have to be hard or complex. When players enjoy what they do, they do more of it. When they feel they are practicing for their own benefits, rather than to please a coach, they continue. 

Maybe I hit the jackpot in recruiting and found a bunch of gym rats, but I believe it is a combination. I definitely search for players who want to be in the gym, but once you have motivated players, coaches have to maintain and enhance that motivation. Small things like asking for players input or allowing players to pick a single drill give players some autonomy, and ultimately motivates the players. Skill development combines many things, but often it is the simple things, like coaching motivated players, that have the greatest effects. 

Maybe it’s the drills

As I refereed a college soccer game last weekend, I heard a coach speaking to his bench:

(Paraphrased from memory) “How many bad passes have we made? How many simple balls have we not controlled? When we do these basic drills and you look at me, this is why.” Read more

Coach Education, Coaching Clinics, and Development

Every so often, a Twitter storm erupts about the need for mandatory coach education. There is a belief that coach education will solve every ill in basketball in the U.S.

U.S. Soccer requires coaching licenses at various levels, including the Development Academy. Their coach education programs are further along than USA Basketball’s, but every complaint about youth basketball coaches can be found in youth soccer, even with licensed coaches.

Last week, I refereed an u14 Development Academy game for one of the better DA programs in the region, if not the country. The “coach” of this program:

  • Refused to listen to the referee and leave the field to be ready to kick off at game time.
  • Complained about previous games when admonished for not being ready at kick off.
  • Continued to ignore the referee as he attempted to give last minute tactical instructions, after the game was supposed to have begun, and when his team did not know the lineup.
  • Refused to stay in his technical area (coaching box).
  • Complained about virtually every call.

Thus far, the description suggests a disorganized coach and maybe a bad attitude, but nothing about his actual coaching acumen. Many good coaches complain about referee decisions, almost every soccer coach ignores the technical area, and rarely are soccer teams ready to play at game time. As a referee, his behaviors were annoying, and unprofessional, but not uncommon.

Can coach education remedy these behaviors? Are his behaviors due to a lack of knowledge? Was he unaware of the kick-off time or the location of his technical area? I doubt it. These behaviors are indicative of his personality, I believe, and coach education certificates or licenses will not change a coach’s personality.

More problematic was his behavior toward his own players. He spent 80 minutes ridiculing and criticizing his own team. He continually used sarcasm to mock his own players. He screamed at his right midfielder, the player closest to the bench, for the entire 27 minutes that he played before substituting for him. Prior to the substitute, he told the player not to kick the ball, just to defend, after the player mis-timed a pass. At half-time, with a 2-0 lead, he whined and complained at his team.

His vastly superior team surrendered three second-half goals, all of which he blamed on me of course.

Coach education is not a panacea for all issues in youth sports. This coach had to obtain a license from U.S. Soccer, yet he embodied every possible negative in youth coaching:

  • He set a poor example for his young players with his dissent toward the referees before, during and after the game.
  • His primary feedback was negative and probably abusive toward some players.
  • He cared only about the outcome (based on his behaviors and feedback).
  • He attempted to control his players at every moment through constant feedback and instruction: playstation coaching.
  • He embarrassed his own players publicly (early substitution and yelling criticisms).
  • He demeaned the opposition (to his players in their pregame and halftime huddles).

How good or influential is a license and the coach education that it represents when these behaviors continue with a licensed coach? What does the license mean? Do we have any standards or ability to evaluate coaches when he has a paid position with a DA club and a coaching license? Are we that desperate for anyone with content knowledge that we are willing to overlook the behaviors and the poor coaching practices?

After the game, I asked about the curriculum’s content to complete the license that he possesses and did not receive much information. It appears that the focus is technical and tactical. A coach education program that does not focus on how to coach will have little impact. Do the tactics matter when the coach is a playstation coach? Does any technical wizardry matter in such a negative learning environment?

I spoke at a USA Basketball coaching clinic last year, and that was my question, from a coach education standpoint. The majority of speakers, as with most basketball clinics, spoke about progression of drills, offensive plays, defensive systems, etc. To my knowledge, coaching and pedagogy received little attention: How and when to give feedback; how to create a good learning environment; how to motivate; how to develop the right mindset in players; the effect of demonstrations; and more. Clinics tend to focus on what to do, and we leave the how and why up for interpretation. We expect adults to behave correctly and with the best interests of their players, but do not address these standards.

The coach in question was particularly disturbing to me because the DA is set up to develop players. How can a player develop in that environment? Rather than attempt to control every action and criticize every mistake, here is Pep Guardiola talking about young players:

There is a huge disconnect between Guardiola’s words and the coach’s actions, but this coach is not an outlier. The previous week, I refereed a local youth tournament. This tournament had specific rules that coaches were to sit on the bench unless they stood to give a brief tactical instruction. At half-time, I asked a coach to sit down. He argued that he was in his technical area. I explained the rules. He said that he was giving tactical instructions. I replied that yelling “That was a terrible pass” or “Stop doing that” at an 11-year-old is not a tactical instruction. He complained further and I told him to feel free to speak to the tournament organizer who was about 20 yards away. Instead, he sat down, stopped yelling at his players, and his team played better in the second half and won.

Somehow, we have an idea that coaching means constantly telling players what to do, and silence means that the coach is not doing anything. We have the idea that a coach standing and pacing is coaching, but one sitting down does not care enough about winning. I hear these comments from parents at high school games, and have seen coaching hiring/firing decisions based on these perceptions of coaching.

Players have been indoctrinated into these behaviors. I had a player who had never played on a basketball team, but was forced to play varsity basketball because the school only had 6 girls come out for the team, tell me that I needed to yell at the team more and that would make the team win. I asked her if she tried her best. She said yes. I asked her if she played hard. She said yes. I asked her what she wanted me to yell about. I asked her if she wanted me to yell at her because opponents were bigger and better and had played basketball for longer. She said, “Yeah, you’re right coach.” Why would I yell at a girl who had the guts to come out for a high school basketball team and who never lost her enthusiasm as her team was blown out repeatedly? Because other players are better than her? Is yelling and ridiculing her somehow going to improve her jump shot?

Unfortunately, that is often the expectations that we have for coaches, and a reason that nobody questions this DA coach. After all, he has a license. He probably was a good player. Of course he is a good coach, that is why a top club hired him.

Now, maybe I caught him on a bad day. Who knows? The larger point is that he is not too different than a vast majority of youth coaches. This, of course, is why people believe that we need more coach education; we ned to educate these coaches. Does it work? He has a license. At least on this day, it did not work. Despite his license, he embodied the worst of youth coaching.

Rather than emphasizing coach education, we should emphasize finding the right type of person to coach children. Once we find the right people, educate, develop, and mentor these people. Our emphasis should be coach development, not coach education. We should focus on the why and how more than the what. The what is easy to find on YouTube; there are drills for everything, plays to beat any type of defense, etc. But, how to instruct? How to demonstrate? How to give feedback? How to respond to a mistake? Why use a specific drill? Why stop the action to speak? This is the knowledge that we tend to leave up to experience to accrue, which is why we have wildly different impressions on the proper way to coach. These questions are far more important than answering whether we should do a three-man weave or run the Flex or a three-out motion offense.

We need to develop players like in Europe

People often discuss player development and European basketball with me. Often, I am told, and I read, that we (coaches in the United States) need to develop players like in Europe. I don’t necessarily agree with the premise, but I often will engage in the discussions. When I do, it seems as though the coaches want a magic potion, because every change based on my experiences that I offer, they dismiss as unnecessary or impractical. Possible changes based on my experience: Read more

Learning from the problems of college basketball practices

Originally published in the Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.8. Subscribe here

Because of my books, clinics, and travel, I know coaches and players from Canada and Europe who develop with FIBA rules and matriculate to the United States to play college basketball. Increasingly, I hear from these sources that college basketball is boring. These players appreciate the opportunity to play basketball and receive a free education, but they are dissatisfied, especially with the coaching and the practices. They cannot wait for the season to end, although they plan to play in Europe after graduation. In the most recent instances, this angst has nothing to do with playing time, team’s success, or other issues that lead to common complaints; one player leads her team in minutes on a league champion, and another is the team’s best player and likely all-league selection.  Read more

Our perceptions of coaching and what it means for player development

Read more

Indecision with the ball

A friend sent me an email with the following drill:

How to develop an explosive dribble

Only allow one dribble to get to the hoop after grabbing the ball off the chair to develop an explosive, fast first step.

Why use it

Too often players look indecisive with the ball in a game – give them a lot of first–step repetitions in practice so they are better prepared to attack in game situations.

Set up

Place a chair near the 3–point line at the top of the key. Place a ball on the chair facing the player. The player is in a basketball position with knees bent and hands ready to grab the ball.

How to play

Snatch the ball off the chair and attack the basket. The player is allowed one dribble. If the dribble isn’t explosive enough, then the player isn’t close enough to the basket to shoot the layup.

When the dribble is explosive, the player plants off the left foot and surges toward the hoop completing a power layup.


Players quickly learn they must explode with the only dribble they are allowed or be forced to shoot 10 feet from the basket. Institute a penalty for a missed shot, which makes getting to the basket and creating a higher percentage shot all more worthwhile.

Read more

Self-discovery in youth sports development

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2015.

During my junior year of college, I assisted with a girls’ basketball team in the HoopMasters AAU program. After several months, a mother asked if I would work with her daughter on her shooting. She offered to pay me.  Read more

Fake fundamentals: Marketing or skill development

Read more

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