Saturday, June 16, 2012

Should Practice Be Fun?

I went back to my family farm last week to spend time with my family and on the way I stopped to pick up my 9 year-old nephew from his baseball practice.  I got to the field an hour early to watch.  What I saw was yet another reason why kids think, “baseball is boring.”   I wrote about this more in depth a few weeks ago if you’d like a more nuanced opinion read here:

The kids were spread over the infield with a few kids in the outfield for what appeared to be batting practice.  One child was pitching while another was at the bat swinging away.  When a pitch did make it over the plate (which was rare) the boys would swing and miss, only occasionally would they make contact with the ball.  Batter after batter this went on before the coach finally decided to pitch and delivered more “hittable” pitches.   Meanwhile, the kids in the field had lost interest about a half hour ago.  On another note less than half the team showed up for the practice and one of the coaches had to rally up a few of the neighborhood kids to help out (How cool is that? It’s nice to know that’s still possible).  How many of those children skipped out on practice because it’s not fun?  I want to make one point on that topic before moving on.  Practice for 9 year olds should be fun; the goal should be to create enjoyment of the sport.  This fun and enjoyment for the sport will lead to long-term adherence and ultimately kids that want to do the extra work that helps them become champions. 

I don’t write this as a critique of any one’s coaching style or the children’s athletic abilities.  This style of practice has been going on since I was a kid and probably decades before that.  “That’s just the way we have always done it…” When you read that it sounds like a pretty lame reason to continue with a mind set that has watched youth baseball participation numbers declined precipitously.

The kids didn’t seem to have any fun until the end of the practice when they were racing each around the bases! 

A different approach may be needed…

When we arrived at the farm after practice at my nephew’s insistence, we played one-on-one baseball in his backyard.  I won’t go into to much detail but yes, it is possible to play baseball with two people and have a blast doing it all you need is a bat, ball, Frisbees (bases), hitting tee and a little imagination.  We played for two hours non-stop and we sprinted, made multiple cuts and change of direction moves while evading flying tennis balls.  Plus at least a half dozen other athletic skills were utilized in our play session.  Of the two approaches it’s not hard to figure out what strategy was more fun but what about skill development?  Clearly from my point of view we accomplished more in the first 5 minutes of free play than I observed in an hour of “structured” practice.

I must defend many of these youth volunteer coaches.  They most likely have a day job and don’t have time to reinvent the wheel when it comes to structuring a team practice; they just revert to what they were taught.  The career path I have chosen motivates me to improve the youth sport/fitness experience for all kids so I do have the time and motivation to consider alternative methods.  If a coach were to run a practice similar to the play model I used with my nephew parents and league officials would likely be critical of it.  Which brings me to an important point we have all experienced coaches that drive their team to hard and parents that yell from the bleachers at players and referees.  This creates a hostile environment at worst and at best it’s one that isn’t fun for anyone involved especially the kids.

Many leagues around the country are starting to develop codes of conduct of acceptable behavior by all involved; coaches, players and parents.  This is essential from a sportsmanship perspective while also promoting a positive atmosphere for athletic and social growth.  One of the tenets of such a code should include a shared philosophy by all that fun is the mission of sport.  If fun is the priority it will allow the love of sport to develop and along with that the desire on the child’s part to improve and commit to maximizing their abilities.  Without fun, this “drive” doesn’t happen in a positive way and long-term participation is discouraged.

Early experience matters, within reason of course…

I recently spoke with a client who said that her 19 year-old son is playing in an intramural soccer league with his friends this spring.  Apparently he is the “star” of the team even though he hasn’t played since 8TH grade.  When he went to high school the soccer season conflicted with football and he chose the latter.  Throughout high school he played hockey, football and track but not soccer.  And yet, after 5-6 years away from the sport he can pick it right back up at a fairly high level.  I loved this story for two reasons.  First, it bolsters my belief that early exposure for children is so critical because their systems are like sponges and they can soak up whatever you expose them to.  Each exposure is like laying down a brick that is added to a solid foundation for future sporting efficacy.  Once these bricks are in place they stay in place, but early diversity of experience is essential for this to happen.  Second, because he learned how to play soccer when he was young it created an opportunity for him later in life to be with is friends in a fun and fitness-promoting environment.  Early exposure and long-term development will provide lifelong benefits.

How early is to early?  I had a conversation with a friend last week and he asked me if I knew of anything his son could sign-up for to get more athletic.  Apparently there is not a lot out there for 3 and half year-olds…  This is the culture we live in these days.  We feel pressured whether that stress comes from within or via media/society that kids have to be doing something!  There is a reason there isn’t a lot out there for kids that age and that is because they should be with us in our homes, backyards, or on trips to the playground or even the zoo.   We need to make more time to play with our kids!   I fear we are losing the art of spontaneous, creative free play.  The benefits are beyond mention for children and adults.  At my class at the Covington School the kids are lost without a ball.  They don’t want anything to do with it if it doesn’t involve a  recognizable sport.  It has forced me to get creative and infuse some diversity into their sporting experience.  I am not discouraged at all by the youth sport culture it just requires some creative thinking by parents, teachers and coaches to give them what they want while also teaching them what we know they need.   As I can attest after the free play with my nephew it might not fit the traditional sport model but it was fun and it works because it’s fun, especially when your 9-years old.


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