Most athletes love sports in all forms—playing them, watching them, immersing themselves in video game versions. For many young athletes, this obsession carries over into miniaturized forms of a given sport, as well. While these “mini” games might be written off by some as frivolous, the role they played during the childhood and adolescence of many of the greatest athletes on earth cannot be ignored.
Smaller equipment can be a great way to hone hand-eye or foot-eye coordination and become more agile with an implement. The environment that often accompanies these “mini” games is also quite different than what you’ll find in the “real” version of the sport, which can be a more holistic benefit. We’ll get into that later, but let’s start by outlining some classic mini equivalents of popular sports.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an NHL player who didn’t grow up playing hundreds of hours of “knee hockey” or “mini stick” in some musty basement. In his 2,500-word ode to mini stick, Justin Bourne, writer for The Athletic and former minor league hockey player, claims the game has been “played by nearly everyone with even a passing interest in hockey.” From Connor McDavid to Auston Matthews to Dylan Larkin, if you investigate the upbringings of elite NHLers, mentions of mini stick are ubiquitous.
“A lot of free play helps build confidence and skills in handling the puck. That free play can even be with the mini hockey sticks, with a ball and a small stick, because it’s still managing a bouncing ball and working on hand-eye coordination,” Rick Trupp, Alaska Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey, told USAHockey.com. “It’s building soft hands, developing rhythm in your hands, and developing that hand-eye coordination.”
Futsal is a scaled-down version of soccer wildly popular in South America and southern Europe. It features a smaller ball plus a reduced court and goal size. Luminaries like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo played it obsessively during their days as amateurs, and they’re quick to credit futsal with playing a key role in their development.
“As a little boy in Argentina, I played futsal on the streets and for my club. It was tremendous fun, and it really helped me become who I am today,” Messi told FIFA.com in 2012.
Of course, simply playing with a mini soccer ball can confer many of the same benefits. I remember dragging our family’s mini hockey nets over to our neighbor’s front yard and using them in concert with a mini soccer ball for games of 2v2 or 3v3 with no goalies.
Aspiring baseball players in the Dominican Republic obsessively play a game called vitilla. It swaps out the traditional baseball bat for a broomstick, and the traditional ball for the cap of a water jug. To make things even more challenging for the hitter, the cap can dart around like a Wiffle ball on a windy day:
“That thing can really move funny, and it’s great training for the eyes,” four-time MLB All-Star José Reyes told Remezcla. “Any Dominican major league player who says he never played vitilla is lying.”
Aside from America, no other country produces more MLB players than the Caribbean nation with a population about half the state of Florida’s. There were 102 players born in the Dominican Republic on Opening Day rosters this year. America might not have a “vitilla” equivalent in our culture, but many young ballplayers do practice hitting small objects with a skinny implement.
“My dad used to get broomsticks and pieces of cork—fishing cork, whatever it was. Then he’d wrap the cork up in tape so it was heavy enough that the wind wouldn’t blow it too crazy. Then he would just flick the corks at me, and he’d tell me to hit them with the broomstick. I used to do that a lot; that was one thing I did a whole lot,” five-time MLB All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger award-winner Andrew McCutchen once told STACK.
NBA megastar Kawhi Leonard is a mini hoop fanatic. He had a Nerf hoop in his college house at San Diego State and constantly practiced drilling shots with his left hand. “In every house I’ve ever been to, (Kawhi) always had a mini hoop. You can only play with your left hand. You can’t play with your right hand. That’s a really cool thing because he’s working on his game even when he’s just at the house,” former SDSU team manager Alex Van Houten told The Athletic.
Whenever guests came over, Leonard challenged them to a left-handed free-throw contest. “He had a Nerf goal on the back of the door in his apartment, and he would just shoot. Friends would come over, playing 2K, and he would challenge us to a free-throw contest,” said former SDSU guard LaBradford Franklin. The habit continued well into his NBA career, and for all we know, Kawhi still has a mini hoop in his home today. We know that Nikola Jokic does.
Mini football? Sure. What American kid hasn’t tried to throw a Nerf football over their own roof? The U.S. military once built a prototype grenade using a hollowed-out Nerf football because throwing such an object felt so natural for American kids. As STACK watched NFL receivers like Kelvin Harmon and Stanley Morgan Jr. train at Mamba Sports Academy earlier this year, they were often thrown miniature footballs rather than real ones to help improve their focus and tracking.
The potential skill development of these mini games is fairly obvious. Smaller implements usually require greater hand-eye or foot-eye coordination and dexterity than larger ones. Limited space or goal size often demands more creative offense. But beyond that, the environment these games are played in by youngsters is often just what they need.
It’s usually just a kid (or group of kids) having fun and playing just for the sake of play. They laugh. They experiment. They get lots and lots of touches. There’s no joysticking coaches or parents telling them what to do, and there’s no fear of failure. Does it get competitive? Absolutely. But kids have a natural compass that helps them find the perfect balance between competition and fun. In this day and age, such play has become increasingly rare. The free time kids used to spend playing this sort of stuff is now being filled with private lessons, travel teams, showcases and tournaments (along with all the time spent traveling to and from these events).
“(Mini sticks) involved friends, playing, competing, but all without the pressures of coaches and practices and frankly, rules. You know, the stuff that ruins most children’s sports. What more could a kid want?” Bourne writes in his aforementioned piece.
If you want your kid to have more fun, be more active and possibly improve their sports skills in a safe environment, buy them some mini game equipment! It’s a fraction the cost of most modern youth sports fees, but can provide hundreds of hours of quality entertainment.
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