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Part 5: Deliberate Play: Is Play Valued in Today’s Sports Spaces?

Updated: Jun 26

(Series: Coaching: Creating a Practice Environment Where Athletes Will Thrive)

In my previous article (The Sports Context: Youth Sports Have Changed. How are our young athletes doing?), I emphasized how Canada's changing youth sports context has influenced how children and youth engage in sports today. The identified shortcomings and consequences of a system with high-performance goals (i.e., burnout, undertraining, underdeveloped and unrefined skills, and reduced participation—especially by girls) highlight a serious issue with how sports are delivered today. Unstructured play and deliberate play are two approaches that coaches can incorporate into their practice planning to increase joy and engagement in physical activity and sports practices.

Image: InfoGraphic from the Canadian Public Health Association (click the link for full infographic)

The Canadian Public Health Association has produced an informative fact sheet about unstructured play and its benefits. It provides evidence to support the use of deliberate play within the context of our current sports—either within existing sports practices or encouraged through neighbourhood and schoolyard child-led play and games. In the “More Reading” section below, I have linked to an article by Dr. Craig Harrison of The Athlete Development Project, in which he provides an example of a practice that includes times for athletes to play and to make choices in their individual practice. This offers athletes autonomy, opportunities for social learning (relatedness) and the time to develop personal competence in sports skills.

Several years ago, I took a coaching job with a successful Canadian cross-country ski club in Northern Ontario. Moving from a small ski club in Southern Ontario, where there were six to eight weeks of snow—in a good winter—my expectation was to see a vibrant ski community with engaged and highly skilled skiers. This wasn’t quite what I found. Rather, I found good skiers; that is, the skiers skied well, they attended their lessons and went on their trail skis. However, they lacked diversity in movement and had underdeveloped and unrefined skills, speed and fitness. It wasn’t that there was no fun or no play, but this was not consistently part of their practice. Their practice was skill and fitness-specific, which paradoxically limited their skill and fitness development.

Deliberate changes to practice planning and the addition of programs that infused play within the program (Important note: we did this for all ages—children to masters) resulted in a shift in the club culture. Games on skis became a regular and frequent part of coaches’ practice plans. Further, the athletes organized games and skis outside of practice and even invented their own game—Monster Ball! Program offerings—Super Saturdays and Kids Running Wild—were structured around games/deliberate play. Some results were expected, and others were surprising. Here is a list of outcomes from the inclusion of play in practices:



  1. What can children and youth learn about themselves through deliberate play? What can they learn about others?

  2. What could coaches and parents learn from joining in play with children and youth?

More Reading:

Dr. Craig Harisson, The Athlete Development Project Coaching, The Human Part

Allowing time to play gives athletes the opportunity to connect with teammates and feel like they belong and provides the time for self-directed practice.

The First Lap Coaching:

I provide Coach Education and Program Design presentations and consultations to sports clubs and associations. I would be excited to discuss how we can enhance the joy and engagement of athletes in your organization. You can contact me at

All the best,


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