WHAT CAN FREE PLAY TEACH ORGANIZED YOUTH SPORTS

street soccer

This evening I stopped to watch some kids, a mix of boys and girls, in the local square (in Spain we are lucky to still have them) playing intensely as the street lights come on, mimicking the moves of the stars that inspire them; playing a unique and special version of the beautiful game.

In terms of child development, there are clearly a lot of positive things going on in these free play games: Players are growing – skilfully, physically, emotionally and socially. This got me thinking about the differences between free play and “organized” sports, and what organized youth sports might learn from Free Play: – A lot I think.

Organized youth sports can certainly offer a lot to young people:

  • It brings similar age/level kids together in a predictable, safe, scheduled way – A family can build it into their busy weekly schedule.
  • Players have a Coach. A good coach can certainly bring a higher level of skills teaching if he/she is able, and help a young player to understand how to progress and work as a team.
  • There’s a Big Game at the weekend. It’s more than a pick up game. You represent a team, perhaps your school, or your community. You wear the team shirt. You gain a sense of pride and responsibility.

What can Organized Sport Learn from Free Play?

  1. Organizers: For younger players, make sport easy to access, local, convenient. Minimize the travel. Don’t have too many training sessions in a week. Maybe 1 for U8s / 2 max for U12s. Let kids explore other interests.
  2. Parents: Chill out! Let them play. At a game, imagine your child is playing with friends in the local square/park, and you are at the café looking from afar; just enjoy seeing them play.
  3. Coaches: Keep training active (as non stop as possible – with a few water breaks as needed), and the fun element high, particularly in teaching technical core skills. Make it social. Build a good team spirit. Allow time for kids just to be kids. Let players take responsibility in their training. Keep it light. Don’t over coach. Don’t talk too much. Be careful about criticism. Don’t do everything for them. Integrate humour into the hard work. Always finish a training session with at least 15 minutes of FREE PLAY where you say nothing at all, except perhaps “Wow. Brilliant.” Let the kids play. Use this time to just stand back and observe. Consider how individual player is making progress, and how you can help that. At games, never coach the player who has the ball. Don’t put a heavy weight on whether a game was won or lost.

Organized youth sports, when done well, can be great for kids. Mixing in some of the feeling and elements of Free Play, will make it even better.

Enjoy your Game

Mike Smith

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