Practice OR Play in sport: What is best for creating champions?
Posted by Dean Holden at August 1st, 2013
by Spencer Vickery, 24 May 2013
In sports coaching, play and practice are said to be two of the key variables that influence skill acquisition. However knowing what is the more effective or what is the best combination of play and practice, as well as what age play and practice amounts should be integrated have proven to be a topic under much debate. Research looking at the experiences of both people who went on to be expert athletes and those who did not go on to be experts in there sporting discipline have become extremely popular. According to the ‘theory of deliberate practice’ expert level in sport is the result of extended engagement in high quality training. This theory suggests that gaining expertise in sport is based on two key factors. The first of these is that previous sporting experiences of expert level athletes should be specific to the sport in which expertise is accomplished in (i.e. a sole focus on the sport that expertise is gained in). Baker, Cote, and Abernethy (2003) carried out a study with the aim of analysing the effects of sport specific practice in the development of expertise in sport. From 15 expert and 13 non-expert athletes it was found that experts had accumulated more hours of sport specific practice from the age of 12 than the non-experts did. The second and perhaps most dominant factors which makes up the deliberate practice theory is that expertise is attained by the amount of time/quantity that one engages in practice, it is important to point out however that this practice must be high quality. The characteristics that make up deliberate practice are, immediate access to feedback from coaches, a drive for perfection, high levels of repetition, maximum effort expenditure, complete concentration, long hours of practice, and performed for improvement rather than enjoyment. Again in research that distinguishes between professional athletes and non professional athletes deliberate practice theory has been well supported with Simon and Chase (1973) proposing the “10 year rule theory” which states that a 10 year commitment to quality practice is required before expert levels of skill performance can be achieved, Simon and Chase explain that during their study of chess players they observed that nobody had attained the level of international chess master “with less than about a decade’s intense preparation with the game”.
However, as influential as deliberate practice theory has been in the development of many coaching programmes, there are some key limitations that must be addressed. If we look to further psychological theories that impact on a player’s development, motivation can play a vital role. It is said that athletes who are extrinsically motivated to perform their sport through the expectation of trophies, titles, money, and status tend to experience lower levels of enjoyment in their sport, in time this leads to lowered motivation and fear of failure resulting in dropout from sport. Fear of failure often stems from extrinsic motives for success, that is that the enjoyment and fun of playing sport is long gone and success in sport is a direct result of winning and having social status, when an extrinsically motivated performer experiences negative results they can fear the social ramifications and threat to their status as a champion, this can often lead to a fear or underperforming. Vallerand and Bissonnetti (1992) discovered in a study on academic students that those who held external motives for achieving successful results in school, such as the expectation of increased money earning potential and other external rewards were more likely to drop out of school. This has been strongly supported in the world of sport. Pelletier et al (2001) found that from 396 swimmers those who were extrinsically motivated to take part in their sport were more likely to drop out over any other form of motivation due to a lack of enjoyment. It could be argued that for children and adolescents especially, there is often an external pressure to engage in deliberate practice from parents and coaches who play the role of dictator. Coaches and parents who do not create a healthy motivational climate whereby fun is of high importance and focus on results minimised can increase the chance of dropout in the performer. A final negative consequence to the deliberate practice approach to skill mastery that is often the alternative to dropping out of the sport is maladaptive behaviours. Research explains that external motives or a high drive for winning over enjoyment purposes can lead to the performer to engage in cheating strategies due to a strong need to impress the coach with good results as well as to impress others by giving off the impression of being highly skilled.
A further limitation to the deliberate practice theory due to its nature of being focused on a singular sport, long hours of engagement, high level of repetition, low fun level, and lack of play time is the risk of burnout. If the athlete is performing a task through the enjoyment of it, a greater level of satisfaction is likely to be had. However a key characteristic of deliberate practice is the lack of enjoyment and focus on fun. The Investment model of burnout explains that a lack of fun makes an activity such as deliberate practice become entrapment, this soon leads to burnout which in turn can lead to withdraw from the sport.
With the limitations of deliberate practice in mind there is a contrasting theory of skill acquisition, this being the theory of deliberate play. Deliberate play can be seen as the opposite of deliberate practice as the focus here is of enjoyment and to try a range of sports which often tend to be “street sports” such as football, basketball, and cricket among others. A key characteristic of deliberate play is that it is intrinsically motivated and designed to foster high levels of fun and natural skill development. The motive for engaging in this style of play is not for skill development or performance improvement (although this can be a bi-product), and there is no specific outcome goals in mind such as playing with a view to enter in to competition, or to become a national champion. Furthermore deliberate play will tend to have rules which are more flexible, and rules that would be present in the sport at a formal or competitive level are absent, for example smaller teams, no specific positions, and no referees/ umpires. In support of deliberate play for gaining expertise in sport Soberlak and Cote (2003) gathered previous sporting experiences from ice hockey players, between the ages of 6-12 it was found that the expert ice hockey players engaged in an average of six other sports. This supports claims that deliberate play is important for gaining expertise in an activity. As Soberlak and Cote also found, performers who engaged in deliberate play and who went on to become experts in their sport also reported the greatest levels on intrinsic motivation thus resulting in long term adherence, consistently high levels of motivation, and enjoyment from playing their sport. Finally Wall and Cote (2007) hypothesized that “young athletes who drop out will have sampled fewer sports, spent less time in deliberate play activities and spent more time in deliberate practice activities during childhood”. Finding from this study explained that players who engaged in deliberate practice for long hours with little amounts of deliberate play were at greater risks of negative implications in the long term.
When considering the argument for each approach perhaps it would be more effective for a combination of the two theories to be used. This way enjoyment is maintained which in turn lowers dropout rates and burnout, but also deliberate focused practice helps to master the skill. In support of this combination Memmert, Baker and Bertsch (2010) looked at childhood and youth experiences of expert athletes aged and found that deliberate practice and deliberate play both played a crucial role in the development of skill and creativity of athletes.