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The importance of making practice fun

This is an excerpt from Volleyball Skills & Drills by American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA).

Keeping practice fun is extremely important. Coaches often erroneously feel that learning sport skills is incompatible with fun, and thus problems arise. We simply need to rethink our definition of “fun.” Focus and fun are not at all incompatible; in fact, focus is necessary for fun to occur. This can be clearly understood if we define fun as “being deeply involved and uplifted by an experience.” We can be deeply involved because of fear, but we probably won't find the experience uplifting. However, it doesn't mean that at all times during an activity the athlete is doing something pleasurable.

This definition of fun arises from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on the psychological state called “flow.” In explaining the concept of flow, Csikszentmihalyi takes various activities that people might call fun and divides them into two different concepts. The first of these he calls “pleasure,” which is the conscious state we're in when we have satisfied a biologic or socially conditioned need. Examples include the taste of food when we're hungry and relief of boredom by the diversion of our attention. He refers to the other concept as “fun.” By this definition, fun has many components, including the following:

  • The activity matches challenges with ability.
  • Focus on the task is required.
  • Focus is possible because there are clear-cut goals and immediate feedback.
  • The worries and frustrations of life do not intrude.
  • There is a sense of control over actions.
  • Self-consciousness is absent.
  • The sense of self is stronger after the activity.
  • The sense of time is altered.

If players are having this kind of fun, they might not only meet prior expectations but perhaps exceed them and have an experience that was unexpected. In fact, after having these experiences, the player might be permanently changed; he or she might feel the change and feel unique because of it. Paradoxically, while feeling unique, he or she might feel a closer union with people and with ideas beyond themselves.

After a particularly grueling outdoor activity, an Outward Bound participant was asked by his instructor, “How was your experience?” The participant responded, “It was fantastic, except at the time,” implying that although the activity was not at every moment totally pleasurable, the overall experience was uplifting. Athletes frequently experience pain, extreme fatigue, nagging injuries, or severe disappointment as a result of their activities, yet they come back to them because they find them rewarding overall.

Clear goals are very important for fun to occur. If the goals are not clear at the beginning of the activity, reflection on their results sometimes allows the participant to view the activity as fun. However, immediately after completing it, the response may have been, “I never want to do that again.” For most activities, process goals work far better than outcome goals. If players have only outcome goals (e.g., winning), at least half of them (those who lose) aren't going to have fun.

There are many goals in athletic competition other than simply to outscore the opponent. These include demonstrating competence, creatively expressing oneself, improving one's self-image, feeling the joy of skilled movement, testing one's ability, and, perhaps most important, experiencing fun. Fun is a major motivational factor for continued persistence in any activity.

Some people are better able to experience fun than others. This occurs when—as a result of genetics or training—they have better control of their mental energies and are better able to focus their attention on the tasks to be done; they are able to set process goals instead of only outcome goals; they have a higher level of self-confidence and learned optimism; and they are less distracted by physical discomfort.

As a coach, what can you do to ensure that players have fun in your practices? If you think of the practice court as an “idea stage” on which to experience fun, the major goal for coaches is not to interfere with the process. Very few players view lectures as “fun.” Too many coaches give their athletes long lectures. Despite our desire to impart our athletic wisdom to our athletes as directly as possible, we need to keep verbal instructions to a minimum. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is from Herman Hesse's book, Siddhartha. Siddhartha (Buddha as a boy) tells his friend, who is desiring his secrets of wisdom, “Wisdom is noncommunicable.” We can't verbally communicate to our athletes everything they need to learn. What we can do is run our practices so that our players have ample opportunities to learn lessons for themselves.

Let's consider coaching activities with respect to some of the components of fun.

  • Match challenges with players' abilities. In unsupervised athletics, kids will always match challenges with abilities, if necessary by handicapping much stronger competitors in some way. When coaches are involved, sometimes the challenges are too great for inexperienced athletes or, conversely, the challenges are not great enough. In either case, fun does not occur. Coaches must be sure that the challenges they present to their players are commensurate with their abilities.
  • Help them focus on the task. In this area, coaches can have, perhaps, the greatest impact. Practice sessions should be planned to allow for minimal time between contacts with the ball. When athletes are standing in long lines in coach-directed drills, boredom sets in quickly, and players will seek pleasure by directing attention to things other than the task at hand. Decreasing “down time” increases the athlete's ability to maintain focus.

It's well known that fatigue has a negative impact on focus and, as a result, on having fun. If practices are too long or the players are not conditioned, no one will have fun. After 90 minutes, their ability to focus begins to diminish. After 120 minutes, they might be too tired to focus at all.

Teaching players how to focus their attention can be helpful. On the other hand, if it comes while they're trying to focus, feedback is not going to help them. Think how distracting it would be if in the middle of a ballet, the ballerina's teacher yells at her from offstage, “For God's sake, point your toes!” Yet coaches do this kind of thing to their athletes all the time, and their activities require no less focus than those of the ballerina. Allow your players to develop focus without your distractions.

  • Have clear-cut goals with immediate feedback. Make certain that the goals of a drill are clear prior to starting the drill. For the most part, feedback is inherent in the activity itself. If any question exists in a player's mind about his or her performance of a particular skill, positive verbal feedback can clarify the situation. But players seldom need to be told when they make a mistake—they're usually painfully aware of it.
  • Help players leave their worries and distractions outside the gym. The practice court should be a sanctuary from outside distractions, a place where players can come and have positive experiences. As long as practices allow them to focus on individual performance, this is not a problem. However, when players aren't having success, are getting bored because of long-winded tirades and nonchallenging drills, or are being disrupted by negative comments, their attention is going to wander and come to rest on the worries they wanted to leave outside the gym door.
  • Give players a sense of control. Focus your drills on the players, not on the coaches. If drills are set up so that it's difficult for players to succeed, players will begin to feel they lack control over outcomes. Frequent success leads to a sense of control. It works best to also give players some say in the goals they are trying to achieve.
  • Try to minimize players' self-consciousness. Self-consciousness in athletics is largely fear of what others think of our performance. If a coach is nonjudgmental in his or her approach and helps players overcome their fears of failure, players can leave their “self” out of their performance. Correcting fear of failure isn't easy, but when players can clearly focus on a task, it's less likely they will feel self-conscious.
  • Help the players' sense of self grow stronger after an activity. Help players reflect on the positive things that occurred during a game, drill, or other activity. Many times, players don't consciously note positive things as the activity is taking place. Discussing the positives can help players, on reflection, experience a greater sense of fun.

This is an excerpt from Volleyball Skills & Drills.

More Excerpts From Volleyball Skills & Drills