“Mental, mental. Tennis is mental”, Coach Joe used to say at practices during my days as an eighth string junior varsity member of our high school tennis team.
Joe was not just the best dressed janitor working for our school, with his Coca-Cola rugby shirts and his suede Docksides. He was a great tennis coach. The Hatters had a couple of top-level competitors in the spring playoffs all over southeast Pennsylvania. Still, Joe’s main focus was getting us –all of us-- to play tennis. And he was serious about the play part.
The old debate of “play versus work” stirred around again in my mind last week when I heard Gary Avischious, a youth coaching expert and the founder of The Coaching School.
Avischious has been involved in sports and sports marketing for three decades, as well as developing coaching models for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and other organizations. Last week he stopped by the Midtown Tennis Club to speak about coaching in sports, and more importantly to stress how important play is in developing top athletes.
Starting off, Avischious pointed out that 70% of kids drop out of organized sports by the age of 13.
As an interesting analogy, he also cited Apple genius Steve Jobs, who revolutionized technology not from a structured environment, rather through hours and hours of experimenting, tinkering and touching technology in the same way that youths kick a soccer ball.
“You look at the old model of a soccer practice with one ball and twelve kids.” says Avischious. “If every kid had a ball and the opportunity to respond to the ball, the situation would be more chaotic but the learning would be substantially higher.”
While organized leagues and one-ball practices are not the inherent problem, Avischious thinks our “puritan culture” as he calls it makes Americans operate in the wrong mindset. The problem is that, as coaches and participants, we’ve come to equate learning with assigning work tasks. And by transforming sports from play into work we assume that athletes develop skills and their accomplishments this way. In reality, Avischious says, the opposite is true.
“A lot of the things that you and I used to do as kids, it turns out, are a lot better for us than organized sports,” says Avischious.
For one, playground sports like kickball are pivotal in the development of a child’s motor skills and psychological growth, often because of the game’s random nature. Without the presence of formal kickball leagues (and pressure of weekly competitions) kids can focus on the play and social interaction essential in personal growth.
In turn, by immersing themselves in play and developing enthusiasm for play itself, kids grow to love sports and want to be involved in activities of all kinds.
“One of the x-factors that people forget about is passion. That’s the secret sauce,” says Avischious.
Development of play though feeling the passion, he says, is ingrained in the experiences of thousands of kids in Canada, who spent their childhoods going out to a lake and playing hockey all day long until dusk, without supervision of coaches or referees.
In short, Avischious extolls play not only as being important for kids and young adults to develop properly as functional, happy well-balanced adults. Also, play is vital to the development of skills and top performance where athletics is concerned.
Other examples of play and passion over organization in sports stand out. Think about Brazil, known as the place where soccer is played at its absolute best. Many of Brazil’s top soccer players and legends never got the opportunity to play organized league soccer as youths, much less own a uniform. It is interesting to note that Brazil’s men have won the World Cup five times since 1958 and haven’t lost a first-round match since 1966.
Also, Avischious points out that parents have a role in promoting play for the sake of children’s’ development.
“A parent will often say ‘When you get all your homework done, then you can go play’. So play and work are opposites. But it is really true that play is foundational for performance, “he says.
Tiger Woods didn't learn his ball skills from a coach.
“Kids in hockey, tennis –it doesn’t matter what sport we’re talking about-- are doing work tasks, but are not developing because (the experience) is not fulfilling or rewarding.“ Avischious and The Coaching School are working not only with individuals but also major sports organizations like Hockey Canada to do just that.
Coaching experts like Avischious are a good omen for those who love sports, but also those of us who love to play. Perhaps the return of the word “play” to “playing sports” will be widespread again very soon.