Games, Fun Friday, and Athletic Development

I’ve had several conversations with parents recently about our use of games in our training. From Fun Friday to daily use, we do a lot of playing. From the outside perspective, it may cause curious inquisition or even frustration that our program isn’t teaching speed and agility. If you read our last blog post regarding context, we can begin to unpack our use of games in our training.

Games played on all fours, such as Medball Hockey, are great for developing spacial awareness, coordination, and balance.

The concept of game-based fitness isn’t new in society, but it is newer to the training environment. Games have been used as leisure and recreation for longer than structured training has been around, but if you look at the trends over the past few decades, there are a few alarming trends. It is not uncommon knowledge that the obesity epidemic rages on and only continues to get worse, but what is less known is that youth sports participation and retention has been decreasing simultaneously. While it may look the opposite for many of our parents whose young athletes are engaged in club sports where teams travel for competitions, the participation in recreational sports is declining. One of the reasons for this may be that as we place more emphasis on competition, fewer athletes engage in multiple sports and instead focus on a single activity. Another reason may be the demand of time a sport may take up in a family’s life and schedule, or possibly even the cost of club dues and travel expenses.

While many athletes are playing more competitively, other trends have been occurring that begin to impact the well being of our athletes. Physical education programs nation wide are being defunded and cut from schools, the use of technological innovations from smartphones to television have us sitting inside more. With this perfect storm of factors, we see a lot of athletes developing motor deficiencies and movement compensations. While in the moment they do not seem like major issues, they can create long term issues both in physical and mental health.

Duck, Duck, Goose: not only a classic playground game, but also great for developing reaction time, agility, and the ability to accelerate

In order to keep this article short and avoid going down a rabbit hole that I could probably put into a full book, it seems necessary to give the context as to why we use games as part of our training program with our athletes.
Like everything else in a solid training program there is a reason for everything we do, including games and play.

1. Long Term Outcomes Require Long Term Plans

For many young athletes, there is always the underlying dream of playing their sport at the highest level. Kids will mention these dreams as early eight and nine years old, nearly half the age they will be before having the opportunity to play collegiately (the first level of truly elite athletics). Based on some quick Google search results, the number of high school athletes that will play for an NCAA sanctioned sport is no greater than 7% (only two sports were higher: lacrosse and ice hockey). Of those sports that were surveyed and listed in the statistics, less than 10% go on to play professionally. To get to either of those levels, mitigating as much injury risk and ensuring they have a broad spectrum of athletic ability is paramount to future success. Building that resistance to injury and athletic ability is dependent on exposure to varying styles of play, tactics, and movement patterns. Having the ability to span multiple disciplines allows athletes to prevent overuse injuries and develop higher levels of skills, which takes us to point number two:

Dodgeball: Another physical education classic game (which is unfortunately becoming banned in school systems nationwide), is great for developing reaction time and multi-directional agility

2. A Pyramid Is Only As Tall As The Base Allows

The Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is 455 feet tall. In order to reach that height, however, the base of the pyramid had to be 755 feet long on each side. Any shorter, and it may have collapsed. The same is true for athleticism and skill development. Athletes level of skill is dependent on their athletic ability, their possession of balance, stability, reaction time, and spacial awareness. It’s hard to kick a soccer ball if you don’t know where your foot is, and harder if you couple it with a lack of balance. The same goes for speed and agility: a broader physical ability allows us to teach speed and agility in a much easier and faster way. In order to develop these qualities, and to grow the neural connections that will enable a greater capacity for these qualities, we need to expose the body to as many different scenarios in order to cause it to adapt. Playing a different sport than an athlete is used to, changing the rules of the sport to change the tactics, and changing the surface an athlete plays on all contributes to triggering adaptations.

Tug of War: Another challenging game that builds and relies on raw strength development

3. Create Positive Associations With Training, Challenge, and Physical Fitness

In 2016, the National Alliance for Youth Sports released the results for a poll done on retention in organized sports. The results showed a staggering 70% of athletes dropout of sports by age 13, with many of those athletes citing mental burnout, injury, and the alarming phrase “it’s just not fun anymore.” The competition level and drive for excellence has been zapping the fun out of sports for many kids, which tends to be the primary driver for initial participation. Translate that into the training environment, where we are oriented to physically preparing athletes for sports, we have found that many sport coaches use speed and agility drills as forms of punishment. This in turn creates negative associations and can lead to unintentional conditioning that connects training and punishment. Part of introducing games into training allows us to develop the qualities mentioned above while also creating positive associations with training and physical fitness. Take it a step back to long term planning, when competitive sports end (which for many happens around the time high school ends) we want there to be a positive association with health and wellness.

We want there to be a desire to continue playing recreationally and to enjoy investing in their physical well-being.

In all, there are more reasons to including games in our training, and the thought process behind game selection and the in-depth workings will be saved for another article. But the above-mentioned reasons are primary drivers into what has become the current structure of training we use. Especially as we have younger athletes, games and play as part of the training serves an integral role in their long term development as an athlete.

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