Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Fall 2017.
My earliest sports memory is playing the Cosmos, another team from my soccer club in a downpour on a field that would make Tough Mudder competitors proud during my first season of youth soccer then I was in kindergarten. I played for a club linked to my Catholic elementary school and church, and the Cosmos were my schoolmates. We lost the coin flip, I suppose, because we played in white undershirts, and the Cosmos wore our usual green jerseys. By game’s end, we were caked in mud. It was so much fun. Slide tackling was like sliding on a slip-and-slide. Nobody cared who won, although we were classmates and rivals. For the players, it was a blast that our parents allowed us to play in a huge rain storm on a muddy field, and, even more surprisingly, that the school allowed the game.
We play sports, especially at the youth level. Unfortunately, rather than an environment that fosters play and healthy competition, as with my game, today’s youth sports grow more serious every year with national championships, televised games, and reality television shows. Youth sport is a billion-dollar industry, and those in the industry seem unwilling to allow chance or fate to play a role in developing the future superstars. Instead, children are organized into specialized training as soon as they move beyond the basic locomotor skills. Rather than encouraging an environment of play and inclusion, we rush to identify the talented and expend resources on these precocious phenomenons with little regard for the physical development of the others.
Mladen Jovanovic, a sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach who has worked around the world, termed this the Via Positivia approach. As he wrote, “The general idea of talent identification is flawed: we try to identify the talented few early on and invest time and resources into them with the goal of developing sporting excellence.” Instead, Jovanovic suggested the Via Negativa approach: “Talent identification and development should work by (1) increasing participation and (2) reducing drop-outs.”
Jovanovic referred to Nassim Taleb’s concepts of upside and downside from Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. “Using the via Negativa approach, we mostly want to protect from the downside (reduced participation, dropouts and general low level of national fitness) and allow the upside to take care of itself (emerging talent of exceptional performance).” The via Negativa approach is the opposite of the direction in which youth sports is moving currently.
To adopt a via Negativa approach focused on increasing participation, reducing dropouts, and improving overall fitness, and allowing the talented few to emerge, our society and culture must re-embrace play. Play often is derided as unimportant or frivolous. Schools eliminate recess when time is required for more serious endeavors, despite research that has found physical activity to improve cognitive learning. Play is not something extra; play is vital to development.
The organizations most guilty of early identification of talent – professional soccer clubs and academies in Europe – embrace play because they understand its importance to learning and development. In Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies, Nesti and Sulley (2015) wrote, “All [the academies] were united in their belief that serious play was the best way to develop players for the future….They attempt to instill a culture of play. This informs all that they do and is part of the underlying performance philosophy….A psychology of play could be detected through practice and theory governing young players’ development in the sport. This was being used to help players acquire greater levels of resilience, inventiveness, courage, spontaneity, and spirit.”
The best soccer academies attempt to rekindle the best aspects of street soccer or unstructured learning environments. Despite the seriousness of their endeavor – producing elite soccer players for professional clubs and national teams – the top academies, such as F.C. Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam, create a culture of play because these experiences are vital for the players’ learning.
In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown M.D. defined the six properties of play as: (1) Apparent purposelessness; (2) inherent attraction; (3) freedom from time; (4) diminished consciousness of self; (5) improvisational potential; and (6) continuation desire. Play, not deliberate practice, appears to provide the best pathway toward the development of creative, intelligent players.
To develop into a creative, intelligent player requires a desire to play and practice to accumulate experience and learning. Play encourages this effort because it is done for its own sake, rather than to attain an external goal. Too many players today practice only when they have an appointment with an individual trainer or a team practice. Greatness requires practice beyond the scheduled times, and play encourages this extra effort because it is fun. Nobody forces a child to play; it is natural and desirable.
Play is discounted because it is viewed as non-serious, and we associate skill and improvement with hard work, effort, and dedication, not fun. However, pickup games, unstructured environments, and play are rich with learning opportunities. “Play does not mean non-serious, easy, or comfortable activity. Neither is it seen as being about uncommitted behavior or lacking in drive and motivation. Instead, this key word, play, was used to explain the importance of small-sided games, individual learning, intrinsic motivation, and creativity,” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015). Children want to play; they want to possess the ball, learn new skills, and try out new moves. Play enhances our learning potential because we are fully in the moment and open to new things.
It is only as we get older that we lose this desire for play. As Steven Kotler wrote in The Rise of Superman, “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. If we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round.” Unfortunately, our overly-structured youth sports system appears to be shortening this time frame and turning play into work for children and adolescents.
When I played in the mud, nobody was concerned with identifying or selecting talent. There were no scouts to see our budding brilliance. We played because it was fun. Nobody from those teams played elite soccer, although the majority played recreationally for 10+ years because we enjoyed the sport. In the age group ahead of us and behind us, players from the same club playing in the same way with similar coaches and philosophies developed into college, professional, and Olympic athletes. The initial emphasis on play did not retard anyone’s development into an elite athlete, and it reduced dropouts from those who were never destined to be professional soccer players. The play embraced the via Negativa approach to talent development by increasing participation and allowing the talented few to emerge. That is the environment that we should strive to re-create in youth sports today, rather than the emphasis on anointing the talented as early as possible and ignoring the masses.