The importance of Play in sport "skill" learning

The importance of Play in sport "skill" learning
I often discuss the value of playing representative and modified games with novice players, and "match-simulation" and "conditioned" games for play with purpose with more experienced players further along the game development continuum. Along the game development continuum, from novice to expertise, the definition of a game is same-but-different. This is a point often lost in the tactical-technical and game vs drill debates (which are artifical debates anyway as no sport or PE games teaching models provides a one-or-the-other pedagogical choice, but rather, a pedagogical distinction in focus and the positioning of the teacher or coach as educator or instructor).

Play is not an easy thing to define, and sometimes less easy to recognise. Two people might be hitting a ball with a raquet against the wall, and one might be playing and the other is not. What do I mean by this example? "Play" speaks to concepts such as motivation, mental attitude or the mental approach to the activity, and creativity; and not necessarily to the observed behaviour. In terms of motivation, play is often written about as being characterised by choice and the ability of participants to be self-directed; play has structure, and in the case of sport, agreed rules that define the boundaries of actions (and/or constraints on behaviour); play involves creative or an imagined "life" connected with what could be, and so play is by definition an exploration of the boundaries of ability and potential behaviour; and play involves an active, alert mind because the activity is challenging and/or motivating in some way for the participant.

Players not only choose to play, but have the capacity to direct their action within the agreed rules of the "game". While to play is a choice, play is not necessarily a "frre-for-all" or "free-form" activity as the agreed rules provide structure and boundaries of exploration (or constraints on exploration), and this provides players with the "logic" or the mental concept of the purpose of the play. The point I make here is that the concept of the game, the "logic of the play" is created by the structure provided by the rules, environment and individuals participating emotionally and cognitively drawing the player in, engaging and exciting the player. Play is thus associated with pleasure, and yet the further one progresses along the game development continuum from novice to expert player the more one is subjegated to complexity created by the rules of the game.

Play is central to sport expertise
Research suggests that the more intelligent the animal, the more it plays (Cook, 2000). Reserach is starting to "paint the picture" the more expert the player the more that individual is likely to have accumulated "play" during the athletes developing (age 5-12) and specialising years (12-16). Further, more varied play during the developing years also seems advantageous to the long term development of sport expertise (Baker, Cote  Abernathy, 2003).

This reflection is stimulated by my recent reading of retired Australin football great Andrew McLeod's biography (Kingston, 2010). I was taken by his story of playing rugby, soccer and Australian football, often all in the same week, in his developing and specialising years. I was also taken by the story of him turning simple "off the line" drills at training into imaginary contests with an opponent - turning the drill into a form of game-like imaginary play. While playing rugby and soccer would not have helped McLeod develop the mechanical aspects of Australian football's sport specific techniques, research suggests that participation in those other invasion games no doubt accelerated his development of a "footy brain"through enhanced development of the pattern recognition abilities that underpin the decision-making skills of the elite invasion game player. In other words, the diverse invasion game experiences provided him a greater volume of game like play to build the brain of the invasion game player faster than others who had the more regular footy training, game and PE accumulation of experience.

Jason Berry's study to discover how expert players develop decision making skills "unearthed" the development process underlying expertise in Australian football (see His research suggested that it is the hours accumulated in invasion game activities that differentiates expertise. Research by Williams (2000) suggests the ability to recall and recognise patterns of play more effectively is a distinguishing characteristic of the expert player.

Play with purpose
"PhysEdders" are all taught the training principle of "specificity" for the development of fitness. What I am suggesting in this blog is that the principle of specificity also applies to the development of sport competency (you may call it mastery, or expertise). What you do when you play, you need to do at practice, at all levels of game development. The more you make training/practice like the game (that is, like play), the more likely it is that you will both "develop intelligent players" and develop bodily capable players as you will be doing at training what the players have to do when they play - and you will be engaging the players emotionally by making training something they enjoy doing and motivates them to be at training in the first place: that is, playing. I suggest that will bring greater joy and "fun" for participants, and with juniors and youth that may well translate into greater retention of players as well.

Cook, G. (2000). Language play, language learning. Oxford Press: Oxford.
Baker, J., Cote, J., & Abernathy, B. (2003). Sport specific practice and the development of expert decision making in team ball sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 12-25.
Berry, J., Abernathy, B., Cote, 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.
Kingston, G. (2010). Black Crow: the Andrew McLeod story. McMillan: Sydney, Australia.
Williams, M. (2000). Perceptual skill in soccer: implications for talent identification and development. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18(9), 737-750.

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