Can We Make Coaching Sessions More Like Free Play?

Replicating Kids Play Will Make You a Better Coach

The other day I watched out the back window as my kids –  1 and 3 year-old girls – chased each other around some bed sheets that hung drying on our washing line. They dodged, zigzagged, laughed and squealed with delight. I fondly remembered doing the same as a kid.

Inspired by the girls, at my next coaching session, I set up a warm up game in which the young athletes in the group had to dodge and negotiate obstacles while chasing a partner. They loved it.

Only a few days earlier I had watched my 3 year-old set up a line of hoops in our backyard and jump from hoop to hoop as a challenge. Guess what activity turned up at my next coaching session?

Be open to inspiration from children at play. Taking note of what kids do when they play can be more valuable than any book of coaching drills.

Watching kids play without adult influence or intervention provides a crucial insight into what absorbs them – and the types of activities that youth sports coaches should probably be facilitating.

When left to their own devices, kids will keep themselves entertained by experimenting with games, challenges and activities that hit that “desirable difficulty” sweet spot, constantly testing their limits and nudging the edges of their comfort zone.

Youth coaches can learn a lot from that.

The Scooter Principle

I remember years ago watching my two young nephews ride their scooters – laughing and singing – round and round the parked family car. The game and the fun seemed to go on forever. It struck me then and has stayed with me since: what can coaches do to reproduce that same exuberant willingness in kids to invest in a repetitive task during a coaching session? How can we design an environment where kids happily and voluntarily “play” a skill again and again? What type of activities can coaches deliver that will reproduce the self-motivated to buy-in and delight seen in that scooter game? Using free play-like activities, those that draw in, engage and transfix the kids, so that they don’t want to stop (what I call the “Scooter Effect”) is the key.

Can we make coaching more like facilitated free play?

Don’t Default To Drills

Too many coaches default to drills. Don’t let drills dominate your session. Drills are sometimes necessary and at times are the best solution to solve a movement problem. But most often, drills are dreary for kids and will be detrimental to your session. Drills are the opposite of what kids would choose to do if left to their own devices. Do you ever see kids organising drills as part of their free play in the school yard at lunchtime?

And if you have to use drills, distract the kids from the drill by making it into a game or challenge or otherwise meaningful activity. Disguise your drills. Create a story around them. Inject a team element. Introduce some novelty. Consider what will draw the kids in and keep them engaged.

Let’s Learn From The Kids

Be alert to what kids do when they play. Take note of what makes them laugh, what absorbs them, and what stretches their skills. Fill your session with games, challenges and activities that the children might choose themselves if you were not there.

Coaching kids constantly tests your creativity. Kids are creative. Learn from them. You will be a better coach.

Follow-Up Task

Have a go at designing and delivering a game, challenge or an activity that aims to achieve the “Scooter Effect”. I would love to hear what you come up with, from where you drew your inspiration and how the kids react. You can let me know by leaving a reply/comment or by using the below contact details.


If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.


20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, Anchor or via email.

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2 thoughts on “Can We Make Coaching Sessions More Like Free Play?

  1. Ray says:

    I totally agree Darren. A coaching session (especially warmups) must be fun & enjoyable to kids while educational in training and delivering effective warmups. From U8’s to U12’s, I include volcanos/domes, jogging, walking, butt kicks, skipping and sprinting to finish line each time. I introduced balancing bars (TT’s plastic connecting blocks) to balance on: 2 feet , then the foot from the “Non Throwing” side of the body, then turning 180 degrees as per discus & shot movement. All ages seem to enjoy it as a fun “drill” yet it’s training for the event. I very recently read a report from an old website called “The Thrower’s Page” & wow it talked about what I was doing. As an extension from that article, I grabed a very large & thick piece of timber at home, cut it into 3 for balancing on. Same to a pool noodle to go under the timber. Result: great balancing device for the older age groups. Cost: $0.00.

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  2. We had a great warm-up on Saturday morning, inspired by one of our (very young) cricketers.
    He announced that it was too cold for cricket (1st December in London, 8.15am…he wasn’t wrong!) so we should all go to the beach…in Sri Lanka!
    So we ran to catch a taxi (it was raining, so we had to run); then ran back again (backwards) because someone had forgotten their toothbrush; then to the taxi, again; at the airport, we had to slip sideways through security (controlled sideways skipping) but someone set off the bleeps so we had to skip back out again; once on the plane, we found we couldn’t actually fly all the way, but we managed to get to Sri Lanka with a series of leaps – some frog jumps, some rabbits hops.
    And so on, until we finally reached the beach.
    And when we got there, the games seemed mostly to comprise bowling balls out to swimmers in the sea, and rushing into the waves to collect any stray balls before they were washed out of reach.
    Great fun. Thanks to Dhruv, my “design consultant” on this project!

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