DON'T DRINK THE KOOL AID: The Importance of Free Play in Youth Sports

This is the second of the three part Don't Drink the Kool Aid Series I am running this winter. My intention for running the series is to provide parents with facts regarding three big issues in youth sports so they can make fact based, informed decisions about their families participation.

Below are the topics I will be covering in the series:

  • Specialization in Youth Sports
  • Youth Sports Travel 
  • The Importance of Free Play in Youth Sports

Last fall, I drove through a great neighborhood on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Littleton, Colorado. 78 degrees.  Sunny.  The weather was probably not all that different from where I grew up outside of Los Angeles.  I pass the local park.  Beautiful trees.  New playground equipment.  Impeccable grass.  I think to myself, "I wish the grass at my house looked that nice."  Two great basketball courts.  Empty.  In fact, the entire park is empty.  I pass two other parks on my way home.  One has an adult Mexican organized soccer league game going on while their kids play on the playground equipment.  The other park is empty like the first with a basketball court that looks like it has never been used.  

That evening, to coach my daughter's basketball team in a tournament, I go to the local youth basketball complex which consists of 6 professional courts, bleachers that sit around 500 people, and gym floors that squeak.  You know, the get down and play some gritty defense squeak.  I love that squeak.  Two of my favorite sounds in the world are the swish of a basketball and new Nikes squeaking on a gym floor.  The complex is packed.  Parents and families are paying $5 each for admission, to watch 5th grade girls basketball.  Madness.  The tournament has been going on all day, and I think to myself, "This is why the parks are empty."



We, and I mean we, me, myself and I, De La Soul, parents, coaches and youth sports organizations have created an environment in youth athletics that is increasingly geared towards meeting adult objectives. Win.  I'll pay you $100 an hour if you coach my kid to be great.  Make a living running youth tournaments. Get the investor a return on the youth sports facility complex they funded.  Gotta get $35 an hour, per court, at eight hours per day just to keep the lights on.  I can go on and on and on.  We need to change this. In this environment, kids can't just go to the park and play.  No time to beat dad in soccer in the backyard. They have a soccer game Saturday morning, and a basketball tournament in the afternoon.  Same on Sunday.  But is this system designed to meet adult objectives really best for kids and their development or do we need to step back and let them play a little more?

I played organized basketball growing up, but nothing like kids play today.  Until I went to college and learned from one of the greatest coaches of all time in Rick Majerus, my real basketball education came from the backyard battles I had with my sister, and playing every afternoon at Ronald Reagan Park against Manuel Garcia Sr.  Since I did not have an organized practice to go to every day, I had the time to make my own decisions about how I wanted to spend my time after school.  I loved basketball.  So I played

Manuel Garcia Sr. was about 50, and played collegiately for UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian.  He was old (to my 13 year old self at least!), slow, played with constant back pain, but somehow he managed to kick my ass and everyone else's ass every single day on the basketball court at the park for about 3 years, until I was a junior in High School when I could finally out play him.  He knew every trick in the book and had the undeniable X factor in pick up basketball. Old man strength.  Never underestimate old man strength.  From Mr. Garcia, I learned how to use a shot fake, how to use angles, how to finish with contact and so much more that I never could have learned from "playing" in a gym doing drills with a $100 an hour trainer.  

Kids learn more than we could ever imagine by just going out and playing, without a coach telling them what to do.  They learn to take chances and be creative without the fear of adult/coach condemnation. They learn social rules such as sharing and cooperation.  They learn new positions.  They are challenged playing against older players with more experience.  They learn to stand up for themselves.  They learn that when they get knocked down, you have to get back up.  You can't start crying and wait for mom to come save you from the stands.  

No sport is rocket science.  Well, maybe gymnastics, but since I am 6'10 I cannot quite grasp that one. Yes, coaches are needed and good coaches can really help player development.  But kids need to just play more.  Ask any kid at the end of practice what they liked most, and they will say "scrimmaging."  I guarantee it.  It is fun for them.  I would argue that if we reduce the organized, structured practices of our youth by 50% and let them just play 50% more, they will be better, happier athletes.  Nearly every study I could find in my research for this article confirms this.  We adults need to get our objectives out of the way and give some freedom back to the kids.  

And us parents can't Drink the Kool Aid.  The soccer coach will tell you that to be great, your child will have to attend practice 4-5 days a week, play a game on Saturday and attend the "optional" finishing practice on Sunday.  All year round.  It isn't true.  Give your child the gift of time, of play, and you will find out what they really love and they will flourish.  They will become self motivated.  If they want, take them to the open gym at the local recreation center and let them play against the high school players, some "old people."  Take them out to the driveway and play one on one with them.  I'll never forget the day in 8th grade when finally, after all those years, I beat my sister in one on one.  It is those experiences that make kids fall in love with sport and maintain an active lifestyle throughout their lives.  

And when Manuel Garcia knocks them on their ass, and tells them to get back up, well, that's one of the best lessons they can learn in life.  Isn't that what youth sports is all about?

-Keith Van Horn - I'm a husband, father, entrepreneur, coach, writer and former University of Utah All-American and NBA Basketball Player.  I blog about youth sports policy and issues, parenting young athletes, college basketball and occasionally a little more.




Twitter:  @coach_keith44