I previously reviewed the book Messy, by Tim Harford. In it there’s a part discussing the value of unstructured play for kids. It references a paper from 2014. The abstract of that paper says the follow.

… hours spent in organized sport settings was negatively related to creativity as an adult; time spent in unstructured sport settings was found to be positively related to adult creativity.

The authors went on to say this as well.

The findings also point to the importance of balancing participation across organized and unstructured settings. The most creative individuals in the sample were those who spent roughly half of their sport participation time in each setting, as opposed to individuals with below-average creativity, who spent upwards of 3/4 of their sport participation time in organized settings.

I want to look at this topic from a couple of angles.

Giving kids unstructured time

The clear focus of the quotes above is the value of allowing kids to do things on their own with little or no adult supervision. So how can we apply that in our work?

How about scheduling time in for kids to just come in and play?

I know this is a hard thing to contemplate for a lot of coaches. Even more so if your time is limited and you don’t control your facility. It’s hard to “waste” that time.

If you have the ability, scheduling open gyms makes a lot of sense. Make sure the kids have the equipment they need and that someone is there in case of emergency situations. Then cut them loose to play however they want. Leave them to figure out amongst themselves how they want to do that and let them get on with it.

No double you’ll see a lot of variations on the Winners idea. 🙂

Applying the idea to practice

Here’s a question. Can we apply a similar idea to our practices?

Along with the development of more creativity down the road, there are some real benefits to going unstructured. Or at least less structured. For example, it encourages the players to collaborate. They need to work together to come up with a plan – and to make adjustments as desired or required.

Those are pretty valuable skills for any team, right?

So how can we apply this in practice?

Well, think about where you could make adjustments to put more of the decision-making on the shoulders of the players. How they set themselves up on the court is a prime example. Rather than giving them a lineup, let them come up with one. Instead of telling them in a small-sided game situation how many players to be front row and how many back, let them decide.

Other words, provide them a basic structure, any required rules, and an objective. Then leave them to their own devices.

One other perspective

A major point of the Messy book is that structure and orderliness is highly appealing. It’s attractive. As coaches we cannot fall victim to that attractiveness, however.

First of all, learning isn’t orderly. And nice, neat looking drills tend not to produce the best outcomes. This is a point Tom Tait made in his Volleyball Coaching Wizards interview. He talked about how is Penn State teams looked awesome in practice. They ran great looking drills. They couldn’t win matches, though, because those neat, orderly drills didn’t prepare them for decidedly messy real matches.

Which leads me to my second point. Volleyball is highly complex and interactive. It does not lend itself well to trying to pull out a single element and working only on that in a mechanistic (neat) fashion. Each element links to other things in a variety of different ways. All these interactions have to be considered. That’s a feature of one of the Coaching Conversations I hosted. You’ll definitely want to watch or listen to it.


John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

    1 Response to "Adding unstructured play"

    • Avatar Kelly Daniels

      Hey John,
      I like this article because it’s right up my coaching philosophy alley.

      I have my teams warm up and end practices playing/scrimmaging. I don’t go through the dynamic warm up structures. My teams warm up slowly by playing and being creative with their teams. Dynamic warm ups if chosen to do so is done before practice starts.

      One warmup drills we call ‘Small Ball’ is a fun one for our athletes. This game is play with only tips, roll shots, overhead pass, free balls, and down balls. Near the end we add a ‘jump’ to send the ball over. Teams choose the score to initiate this addition. Have you seen an athlete jumps and free ball the over? It is hilarious! This drill do work on the ‘small’ skills athletes have to perform during a match. Yet, it also has athletes work on defending those same skills. Since the game can go along time, we usually set the score to 11 win at 15. Blocking is worth two points! NO coaching is allowed at all so we sit back on and watch and laugh!!!

      At the end of practice, we scrimmage with a game like ‘Penalty Box’. This game is played where any mistake/error takes the athlete out of the game. Teammates must score with specific types skills (block, ace, or ‘clean’ kill,) where athletes rejoin their team in the order they were eliminated. We add one specific error like net, ball handling, or easy ball mistake (free ball or over head pass) by opponent can have an athlete rejoin their team. I have the athletes chose two of the specific skills and one easy ball. One other thing, when one side is down to one athlete that athlete can have three contacts if so choose. That is where athletes really get creative in trying to score to get a teammate back on the court. If an error occurs with only one athlete remaining the opponent automatically wins. Normally the score is to 25. The penalty box is normally a jump box the athletes have to stand on. It can get ‘tight’ when most of the team is standing on the box! 😊 Coaches can be creative with the type of penalty box if jump boxes are not available. Again, no coaching is allowed during the team scrimmage. Normally I am writing down post practice notes during this period and go over during post-practice stretching.

      Keep the great articles coming. They are enjoyable to read and I learn!

      Koach Kelly…

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