If you were given a free night to do anything you wanted, chances are you might be paralyzed, at least temporarily, by all the possibilities. But eventually you would pick something, and you would have a good reason for it.
Dave Gleason, owner of Athletes Acceleration in Pembroke, Mass., assumed the same would hold true of the young athletes he trains. As a proponent of free play in his facility, Gleason recently was working with a group of 6-to-9-year-olds and decided to let them choose any activity they wanted to do that day.
But those youngsters weren’t paralyzed by possibilities. They were frozen by the opportunity to choose, which so often is not part of their daily athletic reality.
“They had a lot of difficulty because everything is orchestrated or rehearsed for them,” Gleason said. “They’re told what to do, when to do it and for how long.”
Gleason, 46, didn’t like what he was seeing and hearing for a number of reasons. Here are a handful of the ways in which he believes free play is beneficial to young athletes:
Learn to cooperate as a group
As a kid growing up, Gleason says he experienced free play almost every day. But within his group of friends, not everyone always wanted to do the same thing.
“We’d get together with any number of kids, and we had to figure stuff out after school. Five of us wanted to play street hockey and the others want to ride bikes. The majority wins,” Gleason said. “At the end of the day, we were all friends and we learned how to disagree on a subject and move on.”
That sort of social and individual regulation is critical to the development of young people, but it is often missing today.
“In my local community, I don’t think kids have those opportunities,” he said. “Instead, they only learn from a book or lesson – something or someone telling them, ‘This is how you should react.’ But we know it’s a lot different when it’s right front of you.”
Free play means learning your body
Regimented activity has a time and place, but free play is where you learn a lot about what your body can actually handle, because you aren’t thinking about prescribed breaks or rest periods. You’re just playing.
“We used to play really hard until we got tired, then we’d rest and maybe got into someone’s house and get a popsicle. Then go play some more,” Gleason said. “Now all of the rest periods are dictated. We need to get a pulse for our athletes by really watching them instead of just relying on time. When you’re on the ice in the real world, a lot of that stuff goes out the window.”
And those free play situations – something as simple as pick-up hockey – are places where a player learns vital nuances of their individuals skills that help with reaction time and more fluid movements on the ice.
“Younger athletes in team sports are losing the ability to predict. Through no fault of their own, youth hockey coaches are trying to teach skills, puck-handling and passing, and they’re also trying to teach them how to skate,” Gleason said. “That forces a situation where much of everything is rehearsed.”
Overly scripted drills in very controlled environments can limit a young athlete’s ability to read and react, anticipate plays and develop hockey IQ.
Sprains, strains and general ills
As a consequence of regimented movements and practicing situations instead of just playing, Gleason says he sees more injuries in young athletes that might be otherwise avoided if they were given more freedom.
“In my opinion, this is increasing incidences of non-trauma related soft tissue injury. You have to make up for lost reaction time because you need to use more force to decelerate and accelerate,” Gleason said. “Athletes are coming in younger and younger with strains and tired legs. We just didn’t see that in years previous. I feel like one thing we can counteract this with is allocating time for free play.”
But just including more free play is not the answer by itself. Playing multiple sports and rejecting early specialization also helps allow kids to build athleticism while preventing overuse injuries.
Gleason, who began working exclusively with youth athletes nearly a decade ago, remembers more regimented play creeping into youth sports in the early 2000s. He fears it will get worse before it gets better – “we haven’t reached the precipice yet,” he said – though he remains optimistic thanks to positive counterexamples of parents who just want their kids to learn, play and have fun on their own terms.
“The best players in the world are also the most creative,” Gleason said. “They’re the most fundamentally sound but they see things nobody else sees and create opportunities nobody else can. They have that mindset of free play and they’re the ones who are engaging that in some form on the ice.”