Why free play is a crucial ingredient for player development

The following is an excerpt from John O'Sullivan's latest book, "Every Moment Matters: How the World's Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams."
* * * * * * * * * *

Ted Kroeten is on to something in St. Paul, Minnesota, and you can tell from the smiles on the faces of the hundreds of kids frolicking around the facility run by Kroeten’s organization Joy of the People.

Some of the children are playing a competitive soccer game on an indoor turf field while others have quite a match on an inflatable field with bouncy walls. Older children are intermingled with younger ones,“teaching” them how to play, dominating the games but not in a way that discourages the younger kids from participating. Joy of the People is all about free play, and Kroeten has found that many children, sadly, no longer know how to get a pickup game going.

Kroeten is a highly experienced soccer coach and player, and when he started Joy of the People, he thought he would squeeze in time for free play amongst all the skill training and deliberate practice. Luckily his board of directors forced him to prioritize play. Over the past decade, he has seen his first participants grow into incredibly skillful and creative players, with a group of U19s recently winning the National Championships in futsal.

He has seen players leave his program for more formal clubs and quickly return because they have lost the freedom to improvise and be creative. He has seen children raised in more structured environments come to Joy of the People and, at first, struggle with the lack of rules, discipline, and adult instruction. Over time, though, he has seen the smile return to their faces as they start playing with joy again.

We hear a lot in sports about the importance of deliberate practice: focused improvement through repetitive activity, continual feedback, and correction and the delay of immediate gratification in pursuit of long-term goals. What has gotten lost for so many children, especially with the demise of the neighborhood pickup game and the overscheduling of our children, is simple play. Researcher Jean Cote calls this deliberate play, which he defines as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

Play instills a passion and a love of sport. Play builds all-around athleticism. Perhaps most important, play stimulates brain development. It hastens the growth of the brain centers that regulate emotion and control both attention and behavior. Play inspires thinking and adaptation, promoting creative problem-solving and conflict resolution. It allows children to build their own games, define their own rules, and develop the cognitive skills that are needed, not only for athletics but also for every aspect of life.

In a recent conversation with Kroeten, we got off on a fascinating tangent around creativity and play. Kroeten introduced me to the work of Stephen Krashen and his research on language acquisition. Krashen has found that there are two phases of language learning, acquisition and structure. In the acquisition phase, where learners get a variety of comprehensible input through being immersed in the language or through music and media, the learners gain fluency. Learning is unconscious.

Once structure is added and the learners are taught about rules, laws, skills, and techniques, learning becomes conscious. The learners gain accuracy, but the acquisition basically stops. Kroeten equates this to how players learn a dynamic game such as soccer. During the acquisition phase, we want to provide the least amount of structure as possible so the learner will create, try new things, and play without fear of making a mistake.

Later, when we add structure, we can bring about accuracy. The problem is, we all too often focus on structure and accuracy first and then try to coach the creativity back into them later on. It does not work. “When we teach youth sports in this country, we pretty much focus on the rules, laws, skills, and techniques,” says Kroeten, “and we don’t give any time to the joy and love of play. Only in acquisition can we really improve and become fluent.  What we have seen is that when kids move out of acquisition to a local super club, they seem to plateau. They have not put enough time in acquisition.”

Kroeten is not opposed to coaching and structure but believes we need more time to let the kids play before adding too much structure and accuracy to their games. In his research, most of the best players have had a lengthy acquisition phase before they have added extensive structure. And that is why we need to create an environment where kids can simply play, both within our practices and by being encouraged to pick up a ball outside of practice. “Acquisition builds fluency, and structure builds accuracy,” says Kroeten. “When they are kids, they just want to play,” concludes Kroeten.

“They don’t want reviews. They don’t want rewards. If a competitive game is too much, they will naturally drop down a level to a less competitive place.” As the kids get older, they still want fun, but fun changes. It becomes doing the things that they are good at.Yet what Kroeten has also discovered is that when we introduce free play, it can only have one goal: enjoyment.

“If you try to do free play to improve and get better, it will not work,” says Kroeten. “It can only be for one reason, and that is enjoyment. You have to let go of performance in order to really grow from play, and once you do that, when you go into a performance, you do very well. In that performance you are now playing the game instead of fighting or working the game.”

Our society has devalued play to such an extent that many children no longer value it anymore. This is incredibly sad. I meet many children who struggle to organize a pickup game or select teams, set up a game, and play.

I have tried to run “Free-Play Fridays” at different organizations, and attendance is generally poor. If I run “Skill Development Fridays,” they are packed. We have lost sight of the tremendous value of free play, and we need more situations where coaches provide a safe environment but then step back and let the kids enjoy themselves. We need more organizations to educate their parents on the value of these environments. We need fluency before accuracy, and that comes through free play.

(John O'Sullivan is the founder of the Changing the Game Project and the host of the Way of Champions Podcast. His latest book, Every Moment Matters: How the World's Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams, from which this article was excerpted, came out in December of 2019. It is available in paperback and Kindle.  His previous books are, Is It Wise to Specialize?: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Sports Specialization and its Effect Upon Your Child’s Athletic and  Changing the Game: The Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids.)

16 comments about "Why free play is a crucial ingredient for player development".
  1. frank schoon, December 27, 2019 at 10:04 a.m.

    Good interview John. What gets me is that learning soccer is so simple but we have thrown the simplicity away through structure, regurgitating it, processing it ,make it an obtuse ,pedantic subject,  re-packaged around the concept that you need a coaching license to develop these kids. Van Hanegen ,a dutch great,wrote recently to the process of developing players (youth) and stated we're beginning to lose the essentials of soccer because of these so-called new ideas, structures and other existentials that hinder the development of the youth.  Ted Koester, basically is expounding  concepts that are over 70 years old. He talking about how my generation ,and older learned the game. In other words, WE ARE REINVENTING THE WHEEL", again. You constantly hear NOW voices saying we need to kids to be free and creative....HELLO , PICKUP SOCCER. 

    These concepts are NOT NEW and I'm sure you won't hear these at your Coaching Academy while obtaining a license because they deal with structure, organization and ofcourse the aspect of money charging these coaches.

    <"kids ,no longer know how to get a pickup game going">. EXACTLY!!. Through this kids have lost leadership qualities, creative thinking, by setting up their own rules and structures. Worse, without pickup soccer, skipping that step, the kids are immediately introduced to STRUCTURE ,in the form of a coach with a license who tells what to do, where to go , what you do wrong. From day one they are depended upon the coach making the decisions. That's why today's players,including much older ones cant' think for themselves, it is a herd mentality, that follow the dictates of the coach.

    Kids do have structure even if there is no coach in pickup soccer. That structure is created by playing rules  and through playing mixed ages, for the older player presents  structure to the younger ones. There is an artificial hierarchy created and all players respect and follow it. Ted mentions ,that kids come back to him for they don't like a club or structured environment. YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO BOTH. This is how I developed. I played and learned most of my soccer in the streets (unstructured) and played and trained at Ajax(structured) a couple times a week. In other words, I have an outlet for creativity in the streets playing Pickup.  NEXT POST

  2. Mike Lynch, December 27, 2019 at 10:31 a.m.

    Good article John. In prior days, it helped you couldn't play organized sorts until 8 or so. The result was you did years of free play before joining a team. When structure was introduced, the creative foundation and skills were already embedded. Plus the free play was by imitation, watching parents, siblings , from the sidelines, and parallel playing and making up your own big plays. This is why most high level players in US come from 2nd generation soccer families. Without the good picture and free play, they wouldn't have got where they are. 

  3. frank schoon, December 27, 2019 at 10:48 a.m.

    Realize that at Ajax, playing in a more structured environment, so to speak, the youth coaches, who were not licensed but were former players themselves, didn't follow all this pendantic 'garbage' learned at a Coaching School. For example Johan Cruyff, in his youth just beat everybody and dribbled and scored. The coaches never yelled at Johan for dribbling too much or tell him to pass the ball. What they did in order for him to learn is to change his environment without telling he dribbled or the hogged the ball too much.. They simply moved him up a year, making it more difficult to beat so many players. The secret is to let him experience a different ,more difficult environment. WHAT YOU DON'T DO!!! is to tell some kid who is a great dribbler with the ball to not allow what he is good at!!! The reason is that he's currently not mentally developed to understand the other options off  the ball. I remember in my first game with Ajax youth, I dribbled and beat 7 players and lost the ball. I had no clue about off the ball options. The coach told my father, not me, that I dribbled too much, but he allowed me to do what I was good at. As the youth gets better or older he will get to learn these options WITHOUT LOSING HIS DRIBBLING SKILLS, which is the most important aspect. But what do you see today, players who are NOT GOOD DRIBBLERS...I wonder why??? Because the youth in the beginning stages are told that dribbling too much is not team play, and it is not good soccer, not efficient or whatever. This comes from coaches who are licensed and should know better but don't. We have structured our youth so much today, putting them in an environment that snuffs out creativity.  As a result, we have programmed Wiel Coerver skill drills, or like Ted states  "Friday Skill Sessions", all of which you DON'T NEED. But since we have 'SQUEEZED' the living "creativity" out of these kids through all this structured garbage , we really think were doing something by introducing licensed coaches along with these skill drill sessions.

    I totally disagree on Ted's statement <"if you try to do free play to improve and get better, it will not work". Players who play lots of pickup soccer, get better by playing a lot, improving their touch, their thinking, their one on one playing savvy.  I ,every monday, made it a point to play in a different neighborhood in Amsterdam, to meet up with new, different competition, learn a new move from different players,  a new challenge or way of handling a ball. This is how you build your DNA of soccer. Playing with different size balls, never knowing whether it is a tennis ball or rubber ball, or plastic ball also gave you new experiences upon learning touch on the ball. Everyday of playing was a learning day. 

  4. Ben Myers, December 27, 2019 at 10:51 a.m.

    Any and all youth soccer organizations can and should provide some elements of free play, mixing ages and genders.  A number of years ago, I continued the practice established by my club president predecessor to have pickup soccer in the cool of the evening several nights a week.  The kids, even the adult kids, had a wonderful time and it helped to install the joy of playing the game into the hearts of numerous boys and girls who went on to play at a higher level.  Sad fact is that few clubs and club officials, operating like hands-off venture capitalists running a business, and very much unmotivated to do this.  One of my successors did not understand the benefit and did not want to take the time to organize pickup.  Several of my high school age teams would practice on their own in small groups, knowing full well what they had to do and working on it together.

  5. stan kull, December 27, 2019 at 10:54 a.m.

    One of the best essays on free play!  Excellent analysis.

  6. frank schoon, December 27, 2019 at 11:17 a.m.

    I think the important step, for kids to not get burned out is teach them a love for the game and that is not done through "programmed' exercises, drills etc. This is what is missing with the USSF Coaching Academy teaching the history of the game that involved talking about the great players and how good they were and what they did in games. Kids need to dream, visualize what some great player did. In my days it Faas Wilkes the best in Holland and Cruyff's favorite player whom he modeled himself after.  Fortunately today, we have TV ,Youtube, which kids in my days didn't have. We had to make an effort to go to the game to watch a great player, or learn from an older player playing in mixed ages.The moment we saw a new move at the gamer, the next day everybody was out practicing it. 

    You don't have to motivate kids who love the game and who have a drive to want to become better. But they need a history to fall back on, to want to be like those great players. When is the last time you hear a coach talk about the "greats' and what they were capable of doing and able to demonstrate it.  Fortunately, in the past 2 years the kids have seen ZLATAN play. Zlatan learned his game on the streets. He's a street player playing on grass. His whole, demeanor , his style , he comes across as "I'm the best" and that is how the typical street player carried himself where I grew up playing pickup ball. The best player in my street days, picked the teams. Their was a hierarchy. I became the best in my neighborhood and rule the roost until this new kid moved in who was a shade ,perhaps 5%, better than me. It was noticeable  especially on concrete and as a result I lost my position and became #2. I made it sure I played against him everyday and after 3 months  I surpassed him by learning and watching him and became #1 again.

     The loss of Pickup soccer has not only dampenend creativity but the thinking part of the game. The players of yesteryear that grew up playing pickup were smarter and therefore wer able to make their own decision at any moment during the game without the coach having to step in.
    Van Hanegem stated that basically, a coach is really not needed in his playing days for the players knew what to do unlike today.  

  7. cony konstin, December 27, 2019 at 1:53 p.m.

    We need a soccer Revolution in the USA. We need 600,000 futsal courts so kids can play king of the court, 24/7/365, for free and no adult interference. We need a Rucker’s Park soccer environment. We need to create Courts of Dreams. You build them. They will come


  8. Mike Lynch, December 27, 2019 at 1:57 p.m.

    Free play has more dribbling than passing
    ... first things first

  9. frank schoon replied, December 27, 2019 at 2:14 p.m.

    True, Mike. That's what you need first....

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, December 27, 2019 at 2:25 p.m.

    I disagree Mike. The amount of passing depends on age and age is going to influence organized play too. By U10 (age 8 and 9), kids, especially girls, are socially ready for small group play. At U6, passing is rare. Kids focus on getting and keeping the ball.

    The difference in free play at all ages is there is no coach telling players to not dribble. 

  11. beautiful game, December 27, 2019 at 2:20 p.m.

    Free play is the key in American youth soccer player development.

  12. frank schoon, December 27, 2019 at 2:36 p.m.

    Guys, as I look at those inflatable fields to me they are way to big to play 3v3. I would split it up into two fields , widthwise and have 2 games going on . Also make the goals small ,3ft or so. 
    I would divide it up into 4 small fields playing 3v3with older players. I use to play 5v5 on half a basketball court. And if the kids complained for the lack of space, in which they are wrong, I would group all 10 together in one corner and then show them how much space  they really have out there on half court.
    It's all about the environment;if you want to learn to play fast technically and move quicker you close the space or reduce the field. Or you force them to have to touch the 3x before passing, this will also speed up the game and movement of the player and the ball

    What I don't know about those inflatable fields if you pass against it and create a give and go with yourself in beating an opponent. In other in street soccer we used the curb to make a give and go. Perhaps if they can invent a hard wood plank along the side where the ball can ricochet off of it.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, December 29, 2019 at 9 a.m.

    In the picture, the games are not 3v3. They are 4v4. There is a tiny keeper in that huge goal. I think that is a bigger flaw than the dimensions of the playing area.

    As far as street soccer goes, most side streets are only 2 lanes-- 7-10 yards wide. Alleys are even more narrow.

  14. frank schoon replied, December 29, 2019 at 9:33 a.m.

    'Bob, I stated it's 3v3 for that is really who is playing out there , not the ones who stand in goal, just watching ,which is complete waste. Your right about the size of the field for in my street where I played the width of the street, which we used as our length was slightly over 4 cars parked next to each other and used the sewers about 20inches wide exactly opposite each other as goals. I don't know why we have to have these huge contraptions ,inflatable fields which is totally unnecessary. Granted, it looks neat but you don't need this for it also costs money to buy it, why. 

    Such a big field with so few players is not applicable to learning skills, especially one on one. The free play idea I supported but I'm there needs some adjustments to be made to further enhance their playing/technical ability...

  15. Kent James, December 28, 2019 at 10:40 p.m.

    I agree with the general thrust of the article, and the overall importance of pick-up in player development.  I have a slilghtly different take on some aspects of it; first, while I absolutely agree that whatever you do with the youngest kids making it fun should be the highest priority, I'm not sure completely unstructured play is best for this age group.  Sometimes having the kids play different games keeps it interesting (young kids get bored pretty quickly).  On the other end of the age spectrum, I think pick-up is very important for older players, because it allows them to try new things without the pressure of needing to win.  Playing pick-up is the most pure version of the sport there is; a ball, some space, some make-shift goals and a few people, and let the fun begin!

  16. frank schoon replied, December 29, 2019 at 9:41 a.m.

    Kent, I agree on some of your points. But we need to understand that Pickup soccer needs to be played in Mixed Ages for that is structure. The reason why I never saw young kids run like a swarm of bees after a ball, like here, is that in street soccer where I grew up these kids are immediately placed in an environment with older and better kids who don't swarm and therefore learn right away how to play better. That is all part of structure without having structure, so to speak. And yes pickup soccer is good for older players, but depending how old they are for the accents of the game will change. First it is testing their skills and then it becomes more of mental, savvy game where you utilize your skills on par on how you think the game at the moment....

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications