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The Role of Free Play During Practice

By Billy Ward , US LaCrosse, 12/12/17, 12:00PM CST

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We are in an era of cones, directions, constant supervision and control-driven coaches

Simply put, coaching is a constant balance. It’s our job to drive home the fundamentals and then ultimately give athletes the opportunity to express this. Free play does this for us.

If you’re like me as a coach, your practice is controlled and planned like a Broadway play. You constantly preach nailing down the details while drilling over and over until the players get it right. You find yourself saying things like, “The small things matter” or “Let’s do it again.” There’s no doubt about it, these are important phrases to reiterate to your players.

Yet the more I directed and controlled, the more I noticed a trend. The athletes I coached started to become dependent on me. They needed me for the plays, the formation, telling them when to cut, etc. Like one of those games where you look up at the scoreboard in the first quarter and realize you’re down 6-0. As a coach, I had dug a hole in their development.

I imagine we grew up similarly, playing in the backyard, running around the neighborhood, climbing on trees, and playing every game you could think of. As I have gotten older, I have taken deep pride in my childhood as the kid running around like that. When asked if I played a ton of sports and games as a kid, I typically respond, “I played anything and everything!”

It’s no secret that kids don’t play like they used to. However, we as parents, coaches, and educators have created an environment where we haven’t allowed them to play the way we did. Enter the era of cones, directions, constant supervision, and control-driven coaches like myself that have made “free play” unnatural.

So what did I do to change that?

The Canadians, who are dominating the college game with their box lacrosse background, inspired me to try out a small-sided game experiment. I thought this type of “box” environment during our training would have similar effects on the players I was coaching, and US Lacrosse’s Athlete Development Model was in line with this same concept. I started with 5-10 minutes of unstructured “box lacrosse” at the end of my lacrosse sessions. We would set up a 10-yard by 10-yard field that players stayed within. I kept the rules simple. Actually there was only one rule:

You must take the ball back, like half-court basketball, before attempting to score. And that was it.

Something amazing happened. The kids had a blast. I saw a behind the back pass, but wait… I usually don’t allow that. I saw a kid split dodge and then roll a double team. Hold up!

Don’t get me wrong, it was a learning process at first. I literally had to teach the athletes how to free play. I found myself saying things like, “It’s okay to come up with your own rules, it’s okay to make mistakes, and yes it’s even okay to throw a side-arm shot.” I allowed them to explore and they began to love it.

How does this all fit in?

I know what you’re thinking: Billy’s practices must be like Lord of the Flies, utter chaos with the athletes running the show.

Not quite, believe it or not we hammer home the fundamentals. We spend time working on the principles of ball protection, shooting, passing, dodging, offense, and defense. We spend time during the season in controlled situations driving home specific concepts and plays we believe will allow us to ultimately be a successful team. But, I continue to strive to make free play a part of what we do.

Every session of our off-season training involves 10-15 minutes of free play, and everyone plays both offense and defense. Once regular season comes, we continue to provide players time for free play at the beginning of practice.

I’ll admit, this is and always will be a constant learning process for me. Like you, I struggle at times with letting go. I struggle to make time for athletes to be athletes and just play. I’ve made it a priority to constantly question why we do the things we do. After asking this, I realized athletes don’t need me correcting every mistake. Instead, what they need is an opportunity, environment, and position of authority to create, explore, and learn to love lacrosse.

I’ll end with this quote from Doug Lemov’s book, Practice Perfect. “Creativity, it turns out, is often practice in disguise, and to get more of it, it often helps to automate other things. If you want to unlock creativity at certain critical moments, you might identify skills required at those moments and automate them in order to free up more processing capacity for creative thinking.”

Simply put, coaching is a constant balance. It’s our job to drive home the fundamentals and then ultimately give athletes the opportunity to express this. Free play does this for us.

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