To Train or To Play: That is the Question

“Mom, I’m bored!”

“Why don’t you just go outside and _____________?”

I know how my parents filled in that blank. If you were raised in the 70’s, 80’s, or early 90’s, your parents probably filled in that blank the same way.

The instructions for filling empty spaces of time was to find something to do and “go play”.

For the current generation of children, my own included, there is pause in finishing that sentence. In some instances the conversation goes something more like this:

“Hey, get off your device and go outside to do something,” mom nags.

“What am I supposed to do?” kid queries.

“Go play or something.”

“With who?”

“Good point. Here, let me go outside with you too. Actually come to think of it, let’s play together.”

Or, if the kid traipses off to the yard to actually try to play with a sibling or a neighbor kid and they start to kick around, shoot hoops, or swing a bat and a watchful parent is horrified by the poor technique or “screwing around”, they will rush outside to make sure that the “play” does not create bad habits.

It’s good, isn’t it, when a parent steps in to be the “playmate” for a kid who we all know is either not going to find his/her peers hanging around the local park or, if they do, none of them are going to know what they’re doing?

Yes and no.

The playful relationship between parents and kids is integral to the health of a family and to the emotional security of the kid. It is a slippery slope when it comes to an athlete who is learning how to play a team sport, however, and I’ll tell you why.

I’m going to pick on the age group of 8-10 year olds because that seems to be the age group for which youth sports programming is making the most mistakes.

According to an article on Kid Central TN’s website entitled “Social and Emotional Development: Ages 8 to 10“, it is at those critical ages when children start to learn how to navigate peer relationships including negotiation, cooperation, and competition. It is paramount children are given space and opportunities to explore social dynamics free from adult engagement. Period. This applies to the team sport environment as well.

It used to be the way of the world, but now, because adults have a tight reign on practically every aspect of child-rearing, it is important to create spaces for them and get comfortable with letting go at times.

It is an incredibly difficult ask of loving parents intent on really getting this parenting thing right to tell them to sit still for a while and let their children step into what might be uncomfortable situations as they and their peers practice, screw up, and eventually improve the way they relate to one another. And, gasp, they might make a few mistakes along the way too.

Is it really parenting if you just leave a kid to his or her or their own devices? With the right guidance before and after, I believe it absolutely is.

It’s the playing versus training phenomenon. Children can play on their own, but in order for training to happen, an adult orchestrates the work. For 8-10 year olds most specifically, there needs to be a balance between adult-directed skill and tactical awareness acquisition achieved through training and the self-directed social learning that can only happen with peer groups who play outside the purview of adults.

I know for me as a high school coach, I am incredibly hopeful that the athletes who arrive to play for our school are definitely skilled and intelligent players, but possibly more important is that they are emotionally intelligent, confident in their creativity, empathetic toward teammates, open and coachable, respectful in expressing opinions and observations, and well-versed in independently solving problems. I am not interested in whether the parents know how to tell them how to do that. I want the kids to be working on those things all on their own. With too much training and not enough playing, children are stunted in social/emotional development and it keeps them from achieving their potential as athletes in the team environment.

If you are not already, make sure you actively create or seek out free play environments so that the athletes you are raising or coaching can hone their skills in all areas. To be honest, that decision will far outweigh any shooting, dribbling or passing technique your kids perfect through training.

Copyright Meagan Frank 2020

The Team Adult Playbook




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s