Do Youth Sports Leagues Provide Enough Play?


In the rush to athletic achievement, myelin, 10,000 hours and deliberate practice have become the new buzzwords. However, what about play?

In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown M.D. defines the six properties of Play as:

  1. Apparent Purposelessness: done for its own sake
  2. Inherent Attraction: it’s fun
  3. Freedom from Time: we lose a sense of time
  4. Diminished Consciousness of Self: we are fully in the moment
  5. Improvisational Potential: open to new things
  6. Continuation Desire: the pleasure of experience drives a desire to continue

Think about your own play. When I go to a park to play pick-up basketball, my play has no purpose – I am not training to be an NBA player or playing for money. I play because it is fun and I like the challenge of playing against younger guys. When I play, time is defined by the score (first to 11) or the number of players waiting to play next (determines how many games we’re likely to play). There is no schedule. When I play, I forget about taxes or work or other obligations and am absorbed in the activity. I try new things rather than playing a certain style of play or running a certain offense. I play until I am too tired to continue, until there are no more players left or until it ceases to be fun.

Do youth players feel the same at basketball practice and during games? When players reach a certain age, they play basketball for more than these six reasons. At this point, they train to be a basketball player, whether to make a basketball team, win a high school championship, earn a scholarship or whatever. They participate because playing is fun, but they also desire more from the experience, including an opportunity to continue their competitive career, which requires training, practice and effort. This is when the buzzwords like deliberate practice and myelin become important.

However, I fear that we continue to move players from a playful experience to a training experience at younger and younger ages and ignore the play aspects of basketball. Does a 10-year-old need a reason to play basketball other than (1) it’s in-season; (2) my friends play; and/or (3) it’s fun?

When a parent tells a child that it is time to go to practice, does the player ask if he has to go? If so, does that communicate that something is wrong? This does not automatically mean that the coach is doing something wrong. The parent may have placed the child on a competitive team when the child was not ready emotionally or psychologically. The child may play for fun, but he plays on a competitive, goal-oriented team – he is on the wrong team. Now, if it is a local under-9 recreation league, than the parents, coaches and administrators probably need to evaluate the purpose of the league.

Before a child makes the commitment to train to be a player, he has to enjoy the experience. He has to play. When we push children out of play too early, many do not enjoy the activity, and most lack the passion to train long and hard enough to become an elite player anyway. Therefore, why push so hard, so early?

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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