For most of the sports we enjoy, the active word used is “play”. Teams play basketball, football, baseball, etc. As individuals we play a round of golf, a tennis match, and on. Yet, we discuss and evaluate the “play” of sports in terms of “work”. Arguably, even the field of sport psychology approaches performance as a “task” that needs focus, effort, and objectives. But recent research in the area of positive psychology has explored the value of play, and the findings indicate that having the opportunity to openly play has benefits to our well-being and proficiency in areas where we experience stress and pressure to perform.
Let’s begin by defining play. In simple terms, play is the opportunity to engage in an activity for its own sake, without concerns for expectations of outcome or evaluation. Essentially, this means having fun or enjoying the activity “as it is”. And here is where I find irony so often. Coaches and parents yelling at athletes to “Just have some fun!”, always in stressful situations that are not fun, hoping to spur a positive outcome/performance. Then the cycle of internal questioning begins, with the inner dialogue ending with a sured understanding that something must be wrong. But when we talk with high level athletes about some of their best experiences, they often refer to having the ability to do what they love without worry or concern for how others are percieving them. When we observe children, they are giving great effort in what they are doing merely for the fun it brings. They are not running to get faster, they are running as fast as they can because doing so is enjoyable.
As people engage in play, they also become more confident. In large part, this is true for athletes because they are more open to taking risks. As athletes play they make attempts to try a new skill or method, without the worry of outcome. Instead, they focus on the intent of execution, and take in the effects as feedback and adapt as they continue to play. Think of a time you were at the golf range and decided to “play” at hitting a target. Even if you were in contest with someone else, the real goal was to take a chance to see how close you could get. And each shot gave you information about how to hit the next. Instruction wasn’t necessay, just an opportunity to see if you could do it allowed you to gain confidence in what you knew and how to execute.
These types of situations also promote greater creativity. While you take risks, you begin to discover alternatives to what you were previously taught or believed. In the same vein, playing can include creatively coming up with unique scenarios. Either way, you open up mental flexibility, which becomes an extremely valuable tool in realistic crunch-time scenarios. One of the more popular sports in the world, Rugby, was essentially born out of creativity. A group of college kids had organized to play a soccer (football) match, but the ball was flat. So they became creative and “flexed” the rules, keeping the origins of the game as a foundation, allowing them to develop something new. I remember as a kid, only having four of us who wanted to play baseball. Clearly we didn’t have enough to do much, so we quickly set out developing a game that had altered phases of pickle and placement hitting. The result was a new way to improve our skills, and be prepared for unique game situations when we went out to play with our junior teams.
In each of the play scenarios described above, you may have also recognized embedded challenge for mastery. Experts have written volumes about the value of focusing an athlete’s efforts on mastering skills and seeking challenges in growth. Rather than focusing on explicit outcomes, an athlete maintains motivation and continually improves by working to become an expert at what they are doing. Play incorporates this concept in each of the steps previously outlined. Having fun often times is the product of knowing you improved. Confidence results from what you can do. And creativity requires that you risk doing something new. These elements then begin to loop back on one another. Walk into elite wrestling team practices, and you will see athletes working through situations like they are solving a puzzle. They drill in a way that removes “winning”, and instead focuses on catch-and-release play with each wrestler allowing the other to learn and restart as needed to keep the game going. In an unpredictable sport such as wrestling, this becomes an extremely valuable element of training.
Hopefully you recognize the value of play as an important part of what you are doing as an athlete or coach. Seek out ways to play and have fun in practices. Allow yourself to take risks, knowing that “losing” situations in practice may be part of the process. Purpsefully be creative in ways to play, either in unique situations or by doing something a little differently. As you do so, you may find that you get better. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.