It’s been said over the past few years that early specialization is leading to burnout and injury. For instance, this study surveyed specialized youth basketball players who only play basketball all year long versus youth basketball players who play other sports during the year. The participants included male and female players who were all aged 13-18 years. The results say that 55% of the specialized population reported feeling physically exhausted, and 45% reported feeling mentally exhausted.
On the contrary, this study looked at NCAA Division 1 player. The majority of the athletes surveyed did not specialize early in their sport. They did so around age 14-15 years old, and 94.7% reported playing more than one sport all the way up to college.
Another factor along with early specialization that could be adding to the rise of burnout and injury is organized versus unorganized play. Don’t get me wrong, organized sports are great. But even great things, when done in excess, can become detrimental.
The following question is for everyone, including coaches, parents, officials, and athletes of all ages: When was the last time you just played? I’m talking about unorganized, no referee or umpire, just playing for no reason other than to play.
Take a moment to really think back to the last time you were involved in unorganized play. Most likely, it was just the players and the game. No outside pressure, no spectators, and no screens that would have recorded a potentially great or embarrassing moment. Something special happens during those moments. I’m not sure if research can capture what that something special exactly is, but this article is going to talk about the physical, mental, and other researched benefits of letting our youth athletes have more unorganized play.
Speed and Agility
As coaches, we have our athletes recreate specific angles and movements involved in sports. We should also make sure that we spend time having our athletes create certain angles and movements that are off the script as well because those happen in games, too. Unorganized play will allow off-script movement to happen, and by practicing those movements, injury risk decreases. Tag games are a great way to incorporate these types of creative and improvised reps.
In the article from Physical & Health Education America, The Important Role of Unstructured Play for Adolescent Athletes, authors Dallas Raftevold and Brad Strand discuss how unorganized play can also help develop decision-making skills, learning, cognitive and physical development, and more. All of these skills are part of speed and agility.
Another article from the International Journal for Innovative Research in Multidisciplinary Field by Dr. Jayakumar K, Creativity and Athlete Development Through Unstructured Play, talks about similar benefits from unorganized play, including motor function, as well as the importance of play for long-term athletic development.
Raftevold and Strand end their article by writing, “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend at least one hour a day engaged in free unstructured play (Bishop, 2013). Children play outside less than their parents did growing up, and children’s play has become more structured than ever before. Children and adolescents are being asked to take on more than they can handle when it comes to youth sports (Tremblay et al., 2015)”
This brings me to my next point, mental health benefits that are associated with more unorganized play.
According to the CDC, 9.8% of kids aged 3-17 years old were diagnosed with ADHD, 9.4% were diagnosed with anxiety, and 4.4% with depression. According to both the CDC and www.mhanational.org, the most common form of treatment for this is medication. In Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark, he talks about how exercise, movement, and play all affect the brain in very similar ways to those medications.
For instance, he explains that exercise helps the brain because it not only relieves muscle tension but also increases certain chemicals in the brain. Two chemicals Dr. Ratey mentions that are associated with anxiety are serotonin and GABA. Both of these chemicals are targeted with anti-anxiety medication. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and is involved in the “obsessive feedback loop within the brain” (as someone who has dealt with anxiety and experienced that feedback loop, I completely understand what that phrase means). When we exercise, our muscle cells produce a combative molecule to stop that loop called ANP, thus decreasing anxiety.
Even if you don’t suffer from a mental disorder, your brain still benefits from exercise. Dr. Ratey tells about cases where students and patients who exercised were able to learn better. He explains how another brain chemical he called “miracle-gro for the brain,” BDNF, is increased with exercise. BDNF helps grow and sprout new branches in the brain that help us learn new things.
Furthermore, Dr. Jayakumar K’s article mentioned earlier also touches on social and emotional development and cognitive engagement of unorganized play. He calls it “a mental break.”
If we make exercise fun, playful, and something that kids want to do, they will develop a lifestyle of healthy movement as adults. If we continue to have kids specialize to the point of physical and mental fatigue, then we are creating negative associations with movement and exercise. This makes it less likely for them to be active in adulthood.
Additionally, competing is a form of stress. When we compete, we actually want to be somewhat stressed because it helps us get into a state of optimal performance. However, being stressed for too long and too much will cause hormonal imbalance.
Not all stress is bad stress, but too much stress is bad stress. You can learn more about good versus bad stress and how certain hormones are affected by stress, including oxytocin, here: Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk. Dr. McGonigal mentions in her talk that stress produces oxytocin. Oxytocin is not just a cuddle hormone, as it is more commonly known. Producing oxytocin when we are stressed causes us to crave support from others, which brings me to the next benefit of unorganized play.
Fulfillment and Community
We can all benefit from increased connectedness to each other right now. Organized youth sports have great potential for building community; however, it seems to be lacking right now. We can help facilitate fulfillment and community in the meantime with more unorganized play.
Success and fulfillment are not about how many hours someone spends practicing a specialized skill, how good they are at a certain skill, or how successful they become with that skill. Success and fulfillment are about purpose, community, and strong relationships.
As stated earlier, something special happens when there are no cameras or spectators watching kids play. Maybe an amazing play is captured in the memories of everyone present and is talked about for years by the involved community to bond over.
You might think this is a bit of a stretch, but Blue Zones are parts of the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest. A big factor that goes into their healthy longevity is being part of a rich, deep community. The communities in Blue Zones are we-focused, not me-focused. Unorganized play is a great way to help build a “we” community.
One more thing…
Each of these benefits of unorganized play are connected. Together, they help kids develop physically and mentally while building a foundational sense of community and fulfillment.
The last thought I will leave you with is from the book titled Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter O. Gray.
As I began reading this book, I was reflecting on tag games I play with my youth athletes. Many times, young players are so fixated on the rules and whether you can do this or that, and trying to find loopholes to win. I get it, they are kids, and I encourage their competitiveness. But as I was reading the author talk about his experience with unorganized play growing up, I couldn’t help but think how different his experience was from kids today. His experience involved more discovery and organic learning, which is also mentioned in the above articles. Unorganized play gives kids a chance, on their own, to explore how to move their bodies in space.
Gray’s experience was also freer and more SEL (social emotional learning) developmentally friendly, as he put it himself. And because he played more, he did not have to seek out specific help to combat physical or mental fatigue, injury, or any other thing caused by too much structured play. Gray then goes on to talk about the rise of psychological disorders in youth – it’s all connected.
Competing year-round could be adding to some of the rising stats in mental health disorders since both things have gone up in the past years. It’s not causation, but it is a very possible correlation. I know there are other things as well, such as social media, the global pandemic, etc. Regardless, all of these things are more reasons to just play!