Teaching Kids to Love the Game

“You can’t fill a cup that is already full; likewise, you can’t pour from an empty cup either”

The two main problems that I often encounter in relation to youth practices, especially, at the under 12 level are:

  • Kids don’t seem to be engaged and attentive to the coaches; and
  • The skills being practiced seldom transfer to games

Why is this a problem?

If kids aren’t engaged and attentive in practice, they don’t tend to sit down and stay out of the way. Instead, they find ways to keep themselves entertained and have fun, even if it does come at the cost of disrupting things for others.

This results in coaches and other players getting frustrated and leads to disciplinarian methods in an attempt to regain control and order in the practice. More often than not, the coach is there sacrificing their own time to help the kids get better. Why can’t the kids just listen and learn?

It doesn’t help that come game day, everything that has been covered and taught seems to have magically disappeared, just like the tooth fairy.

I definitely don’t have the solutions, but I’d like to share my beliefs and attitude about this specific topic in an attempt to help us understand how we can solve this problem.

At the end of the day, the main objective of practice is to help kids learn the skills of the game so that they can perform better on game-day. (Not to be confused with the main objective of youth sports)

What do we need to know about the Learning Process?

If we want to help the kids learn, then we need to understand what is involved in learning. Learning is defined as the acquisition, retention and transfer of information. In order for learning to happen, all three steps need to be completed.

Acquiring information is quite simply being able to take in information, sort of like how you are doing by reading this post.

Retention is the ability to remember the information past the point of acquisition. In terms of sports, it means that players should be able to retain the information from one practice to the next and from one week to the next. This is where the first gap exists in youth sports.

Transfer is the ability to apply information across mediums. Taking the information from practice and applying it in games. Taking the information from this page and being able to apply some concepts in your practice. This is the second gap that is visible in most learning, especially in sports.

To understand the retention and transfer process better, let’s look at two different learning modes.

I came across the first one in an article written by David Perell. His article on How Learning Happens is a really interesting one. In it, he talks about “Survival Mode” learning. This is all about learning for secondary outcomes. Coaches who attend coaching clinics because they need the points to retain their coaching licences (as opposed to those who genuinely want to learn and grow) fall into this category. Most students who go to university to be able to get a job afterwards, also fall into this category.

Survival Mode learning can sometimes be effective, however, it tends not to be very fun. Perell talks about how he resented the learning process in schools because he was filled with anxiety created by exams, essays and the dangling carrot of a diploma at the end of it.

The second mode of learning is “Exploration Mode”. Scott Young explains this as learning for the sake of itself. You choose to learn because you want to. You may never use the skill and/or it won’t necessarily help you in your career, but you do it because you want to learn. This type of learning tends to be a lot more fun.

As Naval Ravikant describes it, this type of learning leads to specific knowledge, which is attained by pursuing something that feels like play to you but looks like work to others.

It is characterised by a certain curiosity, an open-mindedness, a willingness to seek new information. Explorative learning starts with inspiration. An idea or thought captivates you and you want to know more. It is akin to a fire being kindled under you, it drives you and pushes you forwards.

Think about the explorers that first left their lands in search of new lands elsewhere. That’s an example of explorative learning. They weren’t driven by fear but by a curiosity of what lay out there. It’s in the same lines as a kid as he plays in the garden observing a butterfly or any other insect. That’s explorative learning.

Explorative learning doesn’t start with the building blocks and then kindles curiosity. It inverts the process and starts with curiosity. It becomes like an itch that needs to be scratched. The building blocks will come later.

Think about all your friends who are obsessed with certain TV shows or sports. They probably didn’t start by researching all the characters on Love Island and then get obsessed with the show. They probably didn’t research the rosters of their favourite teams or study all the statistics first.

No, they fell in love with the show first. They fell in love with the game, with the team first.

I still remember the rosters of the 1998 Brasilian World Cup Team, the Invincible Arsenal Squad from 2004, the 7 Seconds or less 2007 Phoenix Suns and the Windy City Chicago Bulls from 2010.

I fell in love with these teams.

I remember an excitement watching the flair of the Brasilian team, the skill of Ronaldo (not that Ronaldo, I’m talking about the original), the amazing free kicks of Roberto Carlos.

I loved the Gunners man… The flair of Thierry Henry, the skill of Dennis Bergkamp, the speed of Ashley Cole, the dominance of Patrick Vieira and Jens Lehmann. I fell in love with football.

What about those Suns? Steve Nash pushing the ball and playing with a carefree attitude, running pick and rolls with Amare Stoudamire. Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa knocking down 3’s. I didn’t care about Kobe. Nash inspired me to play.

I used to be in class and was looking at the rosters, learning about the players, their backgrounds, their upbringing, wanted to know their dates of birth, their stats.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. I went out and practiced free-kicks. I stood like Henry. I bought Nash’s jersey and passed the ball as he did. I didn’t care about scoring. Nash was a passer and a very good one too. I wanted to perfect my passing. These guys made me love sports.

If you light a fire in the right place in the forest, all you need to do is get out of its way.

Isn’t that what learning should be like? An insane, obsessive desire to want to know more?

Isn’t that what we want from our players? For them to stay back after practice and get some more reps? For them to go out to the playgrounds and practice their skills? For them to play the game that we all love, whatever that sport might be

Explorative learning is fun — Think about that time you heard a catchy song on the radio. You listened to it again, and again, and again. It got stuck in your head. You knew the lyrics. You’d probably sing it in the shower or in front of your friends. If the song really connected with you emotionally, you went and looked at what else the artist has done. You listened to those songs. If the fire kept being fed, you started looking at the inspiration behind those songs. The rabbit hole just kept getting deeper and deeper.

That’s explorative learning. It’s fun and it doesn’t even feel like learning.

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