During my college summers, I used to be a day camp counselor. We had the kids play sports, rock climb, swim, play games, and go on field trips. While it was fun and exhausting at the same time, I remember some key moments that have carried me into my experiences as a lacrosse coach and former educator. 

I would often work the Before Care shift prior to the start of camp. We would set up balls in one section of the gym, mats in another section for campers to lay down, a tarp with coloring materials, and another section of different play objects. When campers checked in, they had the freedom to partake in any of the stations and move freely between them until camp began.

As a counselor, I was usually assigned to the kids ages seven and under. One camper, in particular, LOVED basketball -- if he could, he would carry a basketball everywhere he went. This camper would check in, grab a basketball, and start playing. Sometimes, he would just dribble around imaginary opponents or around the other campers in the gym. Other times, he would start playing pickup games. 

I noticed on several occasions, if he missed a shot, the ball was stolen, or if he perceived some other action against what he pictured himself doing, he would become frustrated and upset to the point that he would stop playing and cry. After a couple of times, I intervened. I had him step out of the game. 

His first reaction was thinking he was in trouble. I assured him that he was not and told him that we stepped to the side for his safety so that he could express his feelings and not get hurt from the game still going on around him. I also took time to show him that other campers who had the same situations would take a moment, and then keep playing. Each time we did this, I told him once he felt calm again, he could just jump right back in and play; he did not need to wait for my permission. In fact, I walked away from him so that he could figure out the timing for himself.

We did this several times throughout the summer for him to understand that he was not in trouble, he needed to express his emotions, his emotions were valid, he still needed to be safe, and he could just jump back into the game. By the end of the summer, he had no meltdowns during play. He was able to shorten his emotional outbursts and just keep playing.

What does this have to do with free play and lacrosse? From the example I outlined above, there are several things to pick up on. The camper did not always have other campers to play with, so he imagined other people on the court and still played. When there were other campers around, he engaged with them socially to play pickup games. In moments of strong emotion, after giving him some tools of self-regulation, he figured out how to manage his emotions when playing with others. 

Free play during camp gave him opportunities to get creative, be social, be imaginative, work on his emotions, problem solve, and most importantly, to have fun. As coaches, any time we offer the opportunity for free play (at all ages), we allow players to tap into those same opportunities.

In our USL Coach Development Level 1 “Developing the Individual Athlete” clinics, we devote specific time for free play. Each time, it gets loud and chaotic. Some coaches stretch. Some take time to have a catch with a partner, some make up games, and some just talk. Some do all of that and then some. Occasionally, coaches begin their own pickup games. All of this without any of the clinic trainers giving any guidance on what to do. The result: coaches have a fun way to engage in each clinic and feel more comfortable in their space.

If you remember back to the set-up of Before Care, camp was set up with a variety of stations that allowed campers to play socially (balls and sport-like games), play independently (coloring and making up their own games), and play with some guidance (any games we would make up that was counselor-led). This is exactly the purpose of our Core Value of Small-Sided and Free Play. 

Stations of small groups allow for a lot of opportunities for players to play and compete in practice so that they can feel more prepared for competitions with other opponents. Building some free play time into practice allows for socializing, discovery, and creativity that will likely carry into practice and game play.

Imagine that player who shuts down with every mistake now learning how to cope with it and keep playing. Imagine that player that is shy and does not talk much now opening up more and relaxing around their teammates. Imagine that player who figures out how to successfully dodge for the first time during a game of free play tag at the beginning of practice and then continues to have success with the skill throughout practice. 

There are countless opportunities for free play and small-sided games that are beneficial to your players. As coaches, we can incorporate these opportunities into our practices in ways that meet the needs of our players. When we return to play, I encourage you to use free play and small-sided games to the benefit of your team. Your players will have fun and so will you. 

Lauren Davenport is a manager for athlete development at US Lacrosse.
 

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