How to Utilize Games to Accelerate Athletic Development

Playing simple games helps kids develop athletic skills that will help them succeed in their chosen sports.

For years I've seen coaches and parents roll their eyes when I mention game play for better athletic performance on the field.

No, I'm not talking about playing more actual soccer games to improve athletic performance—any coach worth their weight knows that paradigm is backwards.

Playing games as we did when we were kids is largely how we developed our base of athleticism. The foundation that propels good players to be great must still be born here. Now it's up to us to give young players the opportunity to do so.

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For years I've seen coaches and parents roll their eyes when I mention game play for better athletic performance on the field.

No, I'm not talking about playing more actual soccer games to improve athletic performance—any coach worth their weight knows that paradigm is backwards.

Playing games as we did when we were kids is largely how we developed our base of athleticism. The foundation that propels good players to be great must still be born here. Now it's up to us to give young players the opportunity to do so.

So, we can put our agility ladders to the side and play a variation of tag that will engage them in more real life, multi-angle changes of direction in two minutes than a half hour of "real" speed and agility drills.

Performance-based games are what kids need. Every athletic development model begins with overall athletic development as the player grows physically, emotionally, intellectually and from a sports skill perspective.

Playing catch-up developmentally to get to the point of higher training protocols is now under the umbrella of responsibility of coaches on and off the field.

As an aside, I will argue that, with careful observation, using game play as an evaluation tool should serve as the basis for programming. Let's take a look at how utilizing existing games or creating games yourself can maximize the performance of athletes on the field.

What's Your Purpose?

Without a clear understanding of the purpose behind what we do, there's no basis for anything. This is true in life and this is certainly true as it pertains to creating sports performance programs for our kids. Developing games for young athletes is no different.

So, what's the purpose of playing games, and how do games fit into the structure of how we train our young athletes? Ultimately, we choose from a variety of things that we know will help our kids perform better on the field. I will tell you we have a definitive "why" behind everything we do.

Performance measures (strength, speed, agility, power, etc.) and injury resistance are obviously at the forefront of most training programs. I'll add that we shouldn't forget about conditioning as well as an athlete's ability to functionally utilize their newfound skills in the context of their favorite sport.

To best utilize game play in your training, you need to first determine the purpose you want them to play. Going back to the example of tag, that's a game that integrates agility, body control and conditioning all in one. Thus, if it's your purpose to develop those things, tag makes sense.

Without desired outcomes for your gameplay it's hard to establish criteria for success against the desired outcome, which renders it almost impossible to know if you are hitting your targets and living out the vision and mission that you so deeply care about. Whether it's a plan to have kids communicate better, squat better, get to 50-50 balls faster or simply have some fun, give the play purpose. When you set that desired outcome, your actions take on powerful meaning and intention—and your players will follow!

Once you've established the purpose of game play in your training program you can now begin to formulate an architecture employing one of the greatest tools in performance training ever!

What's Success Look Like?

Your criteria for success will be one of the bonding agents that will form the foundation of your training culture as a whole. Setting the criteria for success is dependent on you, the coach.

For me, these criteria are less about hitting specific numbers and more about broad, overall goals you want out of your game play. The following are recommended criteria you can use at your discretion or you can frame factors that make more sense for your program and most importantly the young players you coach. As you review the criteria for success you establish over time, they will either defend or challenge your desired outcomes. As such, they'll work in a fluid, symbiotic manner to help your program grow to become what you truly desire.

Inclusion

Simply stated, a key criterion for success for me as a coach is to strive for inclusion in our sessions. Realizing not everyone will love what you're doing all the time, and some might not fit in right away, but you must work diligently to create an environment that makes each athlete feel welcome and at home.

Choosing or creating games that allow for maximum participation is of utmost importance. Participation can take on several connotations. In short, make sure every player has a role, no matter how small.

Co-Creation

Success occurs when we arrive at a place as coaches where we can invite and encourage our athletes to help us create and tweak games and sessions. New games and new changes to games keep things fresh, exciting and empowering for your athletes. It allows them to be a part of what you do, not just react as robots. It changes the environment physically, mentally (neural) and emotionally (relationally and internally) for the athletes.

Don't worry, I'm not suggesting you let your players run your sessions. The art of coaching will allow you to discern how much input your players have at any given time. If you allow your players to use their "create brain" in a way where they feel heard, magic happens.

Transference

Everything we do with our athletes must transfer into sport and life. It's more than physical prowess and athleticism. Transference should be a given—the ability to efficiently react to varied stimulus in a subconscious manner with ease and grace.

But you know what are also needed in sports and in life? How about relational ability and skills, emotional connections, sense of self, teamwork, sacrifice, leading and following, facing challenges and overcoming them, creating—these are just a few key attributes that good game play will not only teach, but also anchor and transfer to other environments. That's the key. We are building better players and human beings by building better athletes. That is our core function as coaches. Training and game play are the forms we use to execute it.

Fun

Young athletes engage in sport for many reasons. A universal commonality is fun. The amusement and enjoyment from sport can and should be carried over into performance training. Game play is a simple solution to infuse fun into any performance training program.

Be cognizant of the contextual aspect of play as it relates to exactly how much fun your young athletes can and will experience. In the simplest terms, what is fun for you might not be fun for them. There's a vast density of lessons to be taught here as well as understanding how to get the most out of your players.

Character/Behavior Shaping

Beyond the physical assets a well-designed training program can offer, game play can accentuate your efforts to shape behavior and develop character.

  • Competition
  • Integrity
  • Sportsmanship
  • Encouragement
  • Inclusiveness
  • Tolerance
  • Hard work

All of the above are intertwined in game play. There is an abundance of opportunity to facilitate character and behavior during and after game play. The art of coaching will guide you as to when and how. Keep your eyes, ears and heart open to the windows of coaching moments afforded to you, but choose your sports and your words carefully. The coach constantly interrupting a game decreases the fun factor.

Playing games to increase performance can and should be one of your greatest tools as a coach. As you can see, the benefits of game play for performance are extremely dense and by using this architecture, you too can be a game changer for your players. Have fun, bring your best as a coach, and go play!

Photo Credit: FatCamera/iStock

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS | GAME PLAY