As simple and as difficult as it may seem

Alright. Here it goes. The question of HOW. The system is broken, needs fixing – how can sport meet the needs of children AND provide opportunities for some to reach fantastic heights in terms of performance? There is so much work carried out in this area at the moment, around the world, that you might think the problem will be sorted soon. And let’s hope so. My worry though is that it is not. Simply because I am afraid the solution is so much more difficult than most of us would ever dare to admit. Sometimes when I present on the topic I use a book, in Swedish, and read about ”the Sport of the future”, 25 years away. The book is thin but holds some really eye opening truths and easily recognisable facts. The future that is painted in the book is truly a great future. One of the versions of the future that is. The alternative is not so bright. In fact, it is quite horrible. And as I read through that section most people in the audience start to recognise that it sounds very much like what we have today. Actually, it is what we have today. The book was written in 1989 which means that 25 years into the future occurred already in 2014. This of course means that the very attractive future that was described in 1989, as a possibility, did not happen. Not because the analysis was not there or the plans were missing. The laid out pathway was just way too difficult to get on so the journey probably never ever started in the first place. The issue of plans and systems have been well described (thanks guys!) by Andy Kirkland and Mark Upton following the great Twitter conversation that has been going this week.

So where does this leave us? I am going to offer, at least an effort of, a different approach. Having said that, this probably needs a disclaimer start:


Not every sport is the same (there is real wisdom for you right there…). A legitimate reason for having to do things in a certain way is for example safety. If safety prohibits some of the thoughts I am presenting below there is no question what comes first. However, safety is also affected by the setup of coaching, by facilities and probably about a million other factors so just make sure safety is not used as a bad excuse.

Second disclaimer is that not all sport is football (more wisdom). Team sports, and football in particular, very often is the norm when discussing things like coaching content, early selection and retention, with the assumption being that some of these factors are what leads to early drop out. Apart from a few sports though, with very different demographics, most sports show similar patterns. Children drop out not because they’re not selected or not wanted. They drop out because the sport is just not an attractive (enough) place to be.

There is something about play

Fred Donaldson, a world known specialist of play, once said that ”people think that the opposite of play is work. It’s not. It’s depression.” Wow. True or not, that is a pretty powerful statement. So what is play really? This is where it starts to get interesting. Play translated into Swedish is children’s activity – ”leka”. Most adults playing with children would need to get on the floor and do things they would not regularly do. Some characteristics often used to describe play are that play is self chosen and self-directed, voluntary, meaningful (to the participants) and fun as well as spontaneous, flexible and creative. Anyone who has seen a child involved in this type of activity, or remembers what it was like, will know how absorbing play can be.

The other version of play, more common when it comes to sport, is to play something, i.e the piano, games or sport. More rarely does this require adults on the floor (more than occasionally) and it will unlikely score anywhere near the on the floor activity when it comes to characteristics as self chosen, self directed, spontaneous, flexible, creative and fun. In Swedish playing sport therefore uses a different word – ”spela”.

So, when Rolf Carlson (previous blog post) described the Swedish tennis players ”playful” tennis up to the age of 14 he was not talking about the second use of the word play (”spela”). He was talking about the first (”leka”). They were simply absorbed by playing tennis.

So, how do we get kids absorbed by playing sport today? Of course this is where it gets really difficult. Every child is different and what checks those boxes of characteristics of each child is bound to be different for each and every one of those that a volunteer coach has in a group. It has to be done though and a good start is probably to start asking the children about how they feel a bit more often.

Being absorbed leading to being obsessed

Now there is a difficult and rather spooky phrase. Being obsessed. I have heard Sir Clive Woodward use this often, claiming he really likes the meaning. Stephen Gerrard the other day described how obsessed he was to be the best. There is no doubt in my mind that the Swedish Tennis players in the 1980’s, somewhere after the age of 14, became just as obsessed. They would not have reached where they got to had they not been. And in fact, they might have been just as obsessed before the age of 14. The problem is that also Martin Bengtsson described himself as obsessed. Martin left Sweden for San Siro as a 17-year-old and tried to end his life at 19 when things had not turned out the way he had planned. There could be a thin line between being obsessed and having a compulsory behaviour.

Does being obsessed lead to elite performance? Of course not. Is it a prerequisite? Quite possibly. Will play lead to obsession? It can. For elite performance to occur it probably has to, at least to some extent. Does coaching play a role? Huge! Coaching is brokering all these feelings and mood states – for each individual. Is this difficult? Virtually impossible! Especially if you are coaching a group of 15 kids. When in doubt though, always focus on play. Children of the play-revolution (remember the opposite is depression) will have every chance to build a great world for themselves.

And what about age?

Lastly, is there an age limit for play? The sport psychologist Bob Rotella once said, when consulting with the legendary Severiano Ballesteros, that Seve had told him about how he (Seve) used to cry on the 18th green at night because it was dark and there were no more holes to play. Not until tomorrow. Now (late in his career), Bob said, he cries on the 9th green knowing there are nine more holes before he can get off the course. The game was still the same, but Seve had gone from ticking all the boxes that characterise play to a state that for him was bordering on depression.

In conclusion, meeting the need of the child starts, and ends, with meeting the needs of the child. Needs that can be very different and needs that are guaranteed to change over time. Fred Donaldson has been around the world the play with everything from grizzly bears to wolves to moose to criminal gang leaders. And he has survived. How? He has managed to meet the need of the other player. That is where sports need to be!


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