When you are training a group of players to be elite athletes it can seem like spending time playing games at practice is a waste of time. What we sometimes forget as coaches is that fun is a major component of the learning process.Thinking back on my time as a player I first remember running around laughing with my teammates and playing fun games. Yes, I remember playing hard, training, and running through drills, but the most vivid memories are from when I was playing "deadfish," "the downball game," and more.
What this tells me is that I was the most present while we were having fun and playing games together. But there are more benefits than just having fun at practice. I've listed a number of benefits which come along with structuring a practice which includes small games that reinforce skills.
Benefit of Games #1:
Laughter is in short supply these days... Today’s players are (in my opinion) way too stressed out in their normal lives. My athletes have so much more on their plate than I did as a player and they need time to laugh and relax (the one thing which ISN'T scheduled for them). Throwing a game or two into practice at least once a week will let the kids be kids. Yes, I push my players hard, and try to keep them just at the edge of challenged yet successful. But taking time to laugh a little with a game can help players blow off some steam and just enjoy being at practice and being with their teammates. I want my players to look forward to coming to practice, and being silly every once in a while helps with that.
Benefit of Games #2:
Playing for fun is more motivating than playing out of fear or obligation. When you are playing because it is fun or if you are trying to win a game you will try harder. Studies show that being intrinsically motivated (from the inside) works better than being pushed to achieve out of fear (punishments) or for rewards (being named the winner for the day). With this in mind, what pushes a player to go all out for a ball, or swing with higher precision, or serve more accurately, than fun? Sure, you may get short-term results from punishments or rewards, but you'll develop overall better players if you give them the opportunity to play better because they want to, not because you're making them.
Benefit of Games #3:
Games can take the monotony out of a long season. Once you get to the middle of your season it can feel challenging to think up new drills or create exciting practices. By playing games, you break up the pattern that you’ve established over the last month or two (or three, or four...) and get your players excited about volleyball again. Of course, this works best when balanced by practices where players are growing and learning new skills regularly. An occasional treat is much sweeter than a regular diet of the stuff.
Benefit of Games #4:
Many times, games teach us more than we can see at surface level. When you are learning a skill, you can become too focused on the learning process that you don’t notice small subtleties since you’re focused on your own performance and the feedback from the coach. When you are playing a game, you become more in tune with what’s going on in your surroundings and you actually learn quicker! It is amazing what players are capable of doing once the focus is fun, not coaching feedback. Sure, there may be some mistakes made and room for improvement, but just remember that you are the one in charge of the rules! You can mix things up if you see bad habits developing.
Benefit of Games #5:
When your team is having fun together, they bond. Improving team spirit and friendship between teammates is only going to help your performance. Depending on the game you’re playing, as a coach you may also be able to jump in! Having fun with your team allows you to be seen in a different light than in the coaching role. I don’t recommend this as a constant throughout your season, but every once in a while it’s OK to let your hair down a little and jump on the court with your players.
Why did I want to write this article? I feel like there are too many coaches who think you need to be 100% serious all the time, and a lot of parents who see game playing as getting "less than they pay for." I guess it's a mini-rant, explaining why it's important to have fun at practice. If you're looking for an excuse to play games with your team because you feel too much pressure to be "on" all the time, I hope you found something helpful in this article to push you towards a quick 5-10 minute game at your next practice!