The coaches toolkit revisited (3): deliberate practice vs. deliberate play

In the iCoachKids MOOC, “Coaching on the Ground: Planning, Doing and Reviewing”, coaches were challenged to review their coaching practice.

I have looked at my use of the coaching tools themselves, and of the spectrum of practice types, Blocked-Variable-Random.

In this final section, I wanted to look at the question of Deliberate Play vs. Deliberate Practice.

The design of “deliberate” (or “purposeful”) activities (all coaching activities) should include:

  • structure;
  • clear progression and challenge;
  • outcomes (“if you don’t know where you are going to, how do you know when you have arrived?”).
  • coach feedback and/or opportunities to reflect on performance and the relevance of the techniques (technical, physical, mental, social) to the game.

But is it deliberate practice, or deliberate play?

Practice vs. Play — Ericsson vs. Coté

This question is sometimes posed as the two approaches proposed by Anders Ericsson and Jean Coté.

Deliberate practice (Ericsson): 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expertise (a theory that Ericsson never actually espoused and has, famously, disavowed).

Deliberate play (Coté): better when the need is to develop decision-making, and is intrinsically motivating and enjoyable.

Sport is (mostly) improvisational — the athlete does absolutely require mastery of the appropriate techniques, but must also be able to recognise the opportunity to deploy those techniques. That recognition can’t flourish in unopposed drills. It can only develop in (opposed) match play, or under practice conditions that retain the most representative features of match play.

For long-term development in sport, deliberate play is essential looks to be essential.

Clearly different to the (classical, orchestral) violinists in Ericsson’s original studies of deliberate practice, who are required to reproduce notes on demand — some might go on to become soloists, with more scope for interpretation and improvisation, or might also be talented folk or jazz musicians, but that would not be a given.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for deliberate practice in sport.

For “unopposed” sports, such as gymnastics or a lot of track & field, perfect reproduction of a technique is required in performance. And that requires deliberate, structured practice, almost certainly with guidance, feedback, challenge and support from a coach.

In sports where an opponent is competing directly to prevent the athlete from achieving her goal, mastery of technique is still required — so no backsliding on the hard yards!

So the initial question — practice vs. play — is probably the wrong starting point. As discussed previously, games & drills both have their part to play.

Yes, for field or team sports, the “play” component in practice is essential, I believe.

But so is deliberate practice.

The coach’s challenge is to deploy each tool at the right moment, and to achieve the correct balance.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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