LET THE KIDS PLAY

I was reading a CV the other day.

I needed to employ another Physio to help with the workload at the clinic. Essentially, I was looking for a candidate that had clinical experience, someone who had carried out this kind of work before successfully. Most ticked that box. Some had over 20 years experience, some had just one or two. As I sorted through them different things started to stand out. Looking wider, beyond physiotherapy skills, the appeal of playing on a sports team stood out as great asset – to me it showed the ability to be part of a team and the understanding of what our patients generally need. I read about volunteer work, while juggling work and study, and thought that this demonstrates great work ethic and multi-tasking.

The candidates that stood out didn’t end up being the ones who had the most relevant experience; they ended up being the ones with the most diverse experience, with transferrable skills and new ideas.

I was raised with the background advice catch phrase “it’d look good on your CV” and it pushed me into a lot of things that I wouldn’t have naturally done – the debating team, student council etc in an attempt to show diversity in skills and experience. But there’s a push in youth sport for specialization.

Between the well publicized 10,000 hour rule, the rise of year round sports specific development squads and an inundation of video footage of childhood prodigies ever since Tiger Woods was filmed swinging a golf club at two years old – there’s a lot of pressure for a child to start specializing in a sport at an early age.

But does that make for better athletes? Does practice make perfect, or does diversity?

It’s a thought provoking debate.

I love watching little Tessia explore movements, problem-solve and decision make as she plays with her little friends, climbs into her pram or escape dad’s tickles. As parents of a 20 month old we, along with most parents of kids this age, want her to try everything and use her imagination to come up with games to play.

They call this deliberate play – it’s play for the sake of playing – about as far from repetitive skill practice as you can get. It’s about fun. It’s backyard cricket, not batting practice in the nets. It’s street basketball with no umpires and flexible rules.

Sure, no-one becomes elite without some deliberate practice (for specific skill acquisition) but at what age and capacity does deliberate play need to be sacrificed?

The benefits of deliberate play are well documented.

1.   More creative and skillful play

2.   The ability to use transferable skills (running, jumping, agility) in a diverse range of scenarios.

3.   A broader exposure to differing competitive environments – some sports require a slow pace, others fast reactive bursts, others both. Building the focus to deal with all these scenarios builds resilience across sports.

4.   Free play = more play: playing for enjoyment encourages trying more things, not only enhancing skills, but making it more likely to discover the sport (or activity) that they enjoy the most.

5.   With more variety in play, there is less chance of burnout: an Ohio University study found that early specialization not only increased burnout in the youth athletes’ sport of choice but reduced their participation even as adults.

With all these benefits, should it be sacrificed at all?!

Here’s an interesting proposal by two youth sports researchers, Cote and Fraser-Thomas:

·       Prior to the age of 12: 80% of time should be spent in activities other than the chosen sport

·       Between 13-15: a 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic activities.

·       Age 16+: when specialization becomes more important, 20% of active training time should still be in a non-specialized sport or deliberate play.

Perhaps in a pursuit to become elite, we are not playing as much as we should. Refreshing the mind with new movements and less constraints is likely something that we can explore through sports at all levels – exploring different ways to use our skills and compete in the offseason and throughout seasons.

But as I’ve stated all along with Good Physio – dealing with athletes challenges us to create better, more efficient outcomes for all. And, the philosophies discussed here can be rolled out into workplaces, schools, homes and CV’s!