Deliberate play vs Deliberate practice – are fun games the best approach in youth development?

Been a couple of weeks since my last post. As many of you know I have been very pre-occupied recently getting my podcast up and running, as well as cracking on with some of my masters work, so I haven’t had a chance to get on with my blogging.

So far, my blog posts have explored topics around optimising youth development and creating the best possible all-rounded players/athletes. So this week I want to offer something more for all you coaches out there to consider. This week I explore a hot topic that is well debated in academic literature ‘Deliberate play vs Deliberate practice’.

a table briefly summarising Deliberate Play & Deliberate Practice

Deliberate play and Deliberate practice, whats the difference?

Deliberate play is all about enjoyment. Deliberate play describes what we often undertook as kids, playing games on the street or staying after school to play football on the school field with your mates. As described in the table above, this occurs in various settings, and in most cases is performed ‘for its own sake’ without any purpose behind it.

Deliberate play

“Deliberate play activity includes the classic neighborhood pickup games, such as park football and street basketball, that are usually played with small-sided teams and flexible peer-defined rules. In contrast to deliberate practice, these deliberate play activities are not partaken with the specific intent of improving performance; however, they nevertheless may become important in influencing whether expertise ultimately appears”

(Côté, 1999; Côté et al., 2003 quoted in Berry, Abernethy & Côté 2008, P687)

Deliberate practice is what we may associate or perceive as the format that makes up training sessions in sports clubs. Performing drills in practice, working on specific technical skills or tactics, deliberate practice is all about explicitly developing the athlete, there is a purpose behind it! Cote & collegues (2007) suggest that it may not be enjoyable for athletes compared to deliberate play (although I really enjoyed it as a player).

Deliberate practice

“Deliberate practice was defined as highly structured practice undertaken with the specific purpose of improving performance in the domain of specialization. In addition, deliberate practice was characterized as requiring sustained cognitive and/or physical effort, being solely directed toward positive skill development and error correction, and being not necessarily inherently enjoyable.”

(Berry, Abernethy, and Côté, 2008, P686)

So as a coach should we use Deliberate play or Deliberate practice? What whats the guidance?

Cote & collegues developmental model of sports participation (2007) offers guidance on which approach should be used at each stage of youth development. The model infers that in the younger years (age 5 – 11), which are often termed ‘the sampling years’, training usually involves a high amount of deliberate play. This is because in this period children are introduced to sport. Children often sample a wide range of sports and begin to learn the rules and dynamics of each sport. At this stage, deliberate play allows children to develop key ‘fundamental movement skills’ as the starting blocks to develop sports-specific skills at the next stage. Deliberate play also allows children to develop gross motor skills, brain function, physical co-ordination, posture & balance, confidence, social skills, emotional control, creativity and imagination, which are all important for future performance (Bayli, 2011).

As players move into the specialising years (age 12 – 15, where players begin to reduce involvement in other sports and focus on one sport), training tends to move into a 50/50 balance of both deliberate play and practice. In this stage there is a need to begin purposely working on skill development for future performance (such as general & sports-specific skills, physical skills etc) and to explicitly develop of the game, yet the aspect of fun through deliberate play is still important so the player enjoys participation and remains within the sport.

The developmental model of sports participation (Cote et al, 2007)

Finally as players progress into the investment years (15 – 18, high investment in one sport, such as playing in a football academy to make it to a professional or elite level) training tends to move into a higher focus on deliberate practice. At this stage players need to spend a high amount of time developing skills for performance to eventually compete at a professional or elite level. The Long Term Athletic Development model (Bayli, 2011) suggests at this age players begin ‘training to compete’ and later ‘training to win’, which reflects the need for traditional ‘deliberate practice’

It should also be noted that if players do not move into the specialising years and subsequently the investment years, or drop out of these stages at any point, they move into the ‘recreational years’. This stage is players that are not training to make it as a professional, and play the sport simply for enjoyment. Therefore Cote & colleagues recommend that this stage should consist of a high amount of deliberate play, as there is no inherent need to spend a lot of time improving skills as the main goal is to have fun.

So although this is what Cote & colleagues infer, this isn’t always the case, especially in my experience working under/with several grassroots & academy football coaches. I often recall several coaches using a high amount of deliberate practice in the sampling, specialising and investment years. In my experience as a player in the recreational stage, this too was often the training focus.

So which is more effective? well thats hard to say!

The problem is a lot of researchers disagree with their answer to this question!

In terms of creating players/athletes that make it to the elite level, there is research that implies both approaches are effective.

Ericsson (1996) and Simon & Chase (1973) advocate for deliberate practice. There collective research suggests that 10 years of deliberate practice (equating to 10,000 hours) is required for an individual to make it to an elite or international level. In contrast ‘a considerable amount of evidence has demonstrated that athletes who had a diversified early sport experience involving high levels of deliberate play and low levels of deliberate practice during childhood could achieve an elite level of performance in sport’ (Countinho et al, 2016, P283). However, some researchers also suggest that a combination of both deliberate play and deliberate practice leads to the elite level. Ford & colleagues (2009) research in particular found this combination allows individuals to become elite football players.

Anders Ericsson – an advocate for deliberate practice

The argument can also be dependent on the sport. Sports associated with early specialization (where children only practice and perform one sport from a very young age, such as swimming or gymnastics for example) would argue that ‘to reach a high level of performance, an athlete typically requires abundant coach-led, ‘deliberate practice’, designed to improve an athlete’s performance through frequent repetitions, use of instructions and frequent corrections, leading to movement reproduction’ (Strafford et al, 2018, P1).

In terms of creating the best possible all rounded player/athlete/performer in your sport, again there is evidence for both approaches.

From a performance aspect, high-performance coaches from swimming & gymnastics would again argue deliberate practice from an early age is the best approach, and it’s hard to argue with that! Just look at the number of medals athletes representing Team GB from both sports have won over the last 3 Olympic’s. In terms of creating all rounded athletes, look at Micheal Phelps. The most decorated Olympian of all time excelled in butterfly, front crawl and backstroke. His technical, tactical and bio-psycho-social skills were evidently well developed, and this all came from a high amount of deliberate practice from the age of 7.

Micheal Phelps – the most decorated Olympian in history

From a deliberate play perspective, Greco & Colleagues (2010) found that deliberate play lead to an increase in tactical creativity and tactical intelligence for youth basketball players. Deliberate play may also ‘amplify variable playing experience and stimulate the exploration of varied technical and tactical solutions (Güllich, 2014, P763).The athletic skills model (Wormhoudt et al, 2017) is also a high advocate for deliberate play, suggesting exploratory practice and guided discovery help individuals become better attuned to affordances (opportunities for action) within their sport. Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax are one club that encompasses the use of a high focus of deliberate play within their academy, which has ultimately lead to the creation of two of the best all rounded players in world football, Donny van de Beek & Matthijs de Ligt.

van de Beek & de Ligt are two players that really benefited from the deliberate play approach

Yet again, Memmert & colleagues (2010) are one of several researchers that advocate for a mixture of both approaches. They found in their study ‘that both deliberate play & deliberate practice both have crucial roles for the development of creative behaviour in basketball, handball, field hockey & soccer.

So whats my take on it?

Well, personally I’m a big advocate for Deliberate play, especially in youth development. As I’ve mentioned before, Im a big supporter of FUN games and the Teaching Games For Understanding (TGFU) approach (Blunker, Thorpe & Almond, 1986). I would say the majority of my coaching pedagogy revolves around this approach.

However, I wouldnt say that this is completely ‘deliberate play’, I would say it ‘deliberate practice in the form of deliberate play’. The drills in the sessions are ‘deliberate play’, but they have a purpose behind it. I tend to agree with one of the main tenets of the Athletic Skills Model:

“Practice should be intensive at times, should definitely incorporate fun and enjoyment, and should focus on adaptability and refinement of actions through repitition of achievement performance outcomes in different ways, as performance conditions change.”

(Wormhoudt & Collegues (2017, n.p)

Why? I’ll give you well 3 reasons.

  • Firstly from a coaching perspective in youth development, I think it is the best way for players to learn and develop the 5 elements of the FA’s four corner model (technical, tactical, physical, psychological and social skills). In my experience (as a player and an assistant coach), the majority of deliberate practice drills do not always represent the logical structure of the game (for example spending a session working on dribbling drills in pairs). Fun games more often than not represent the games logical structure, the TGFU structure in particular involves exaggeration (where games maintain the primary rules of the full game) and representation (where the games used are modified mini games that contain the same tactical structure of the adult game). If we think from a tactical periodization viewpoint, the players are learning how to use these elements in game’s that represent the actual game where they will use them, allowing skills to be transferred from training practice into the game.
Definition of the Exaggeration & Representation elements of the TGFU approach
  • Secondly, I started playing football when I was 11. I wasn’t subjected to any coaching within a team, or more importantly any deliberate practice and drills. I learn’t the game and developed my tactical and technical skills by playing football games after school 3 or 4 times a week for 3 years. When I eventually joined a team at 14, I was as good tactically/technically as the majority of the players there (who had been at the club since the age of 7 and subjected to deliberate practice), if not better.
In my young days as a swimmer
  • Thirdly, a quote summed up perfectly by my good friend Josh Smith. When talking about his coaching philosophy in the Sports Coaching podcast, Josh states ‘if we are honest with ourselves, how many of our players are actually going to go on and play professionally’. I think this is very true and has actually influenced my own coaching philosophy. If were asking players & their parents to commit their time to training (just think how much time and commitment a young football player spends at an academy training, sometimes 4 or 5 times a week) then it is important that the players have fun and enjoy the session. I swam for Sheffield city in my youth 7 times a week for 7 years and if i’m honest never really enjoyed it, I look back at it as wasted time. So I don’t agree with getting players to dedicate so much time in training and not having the element of fun as the forefront, especially for the sampling years.

Thats not to say that I always choose my sessions to revolve around deliberate play, again, the choice depends on your context as a coach. In many instances deliberate practice may be more appropriate to teach the players the objectives that you want them to achieve, remember the pedagogical approach chosen is dependent on the needs and wants of the group that your working with!

So there we have it, a brief discussion on Deliberate play vs Deliberate practice. I hope that this was an insightful read for you. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions!


Balyi, I., Way, R. and Higgs, C., 2013. Long-term athlete development. Human Kinetics.

Berry, J., Abernethy, B. and Côté, J., 2008. The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of sport and exercise psychology30(6), pp.685-708.

Bunker, D., Thorpe, R. and Almond, L., 1986. Rethinking games teaching. Loughborough: University of Technology.

Côté, J. and Vierimaa, M., 2014. The developmental model of sport participation: 15 years after its first conceptualization. Science & Sports29, pp.S63-S69.

Greco, P., Memmert, D. and Morales, J.C., 2010. The effect of deliberate play on tactical performance in basketball. Perceptual and motor skills110(3), pp.849-856.

Güllich, A., 2014. Many roads lead to Rome–Developmental paths to Olympic gold in men’s field hockey. European Journal of Sport Science14(8), pp.763-771.

Memmert, D., Baker, J. and Bertsch, C., 2010. Play and practice in the development of sport‐specific creativity in team ball sports. High ability studies21(1), pp.3-18.

Wormhoudt, R., Savelsbergh, G.J., Teunissen, J.W. and Davids, K., 2017. The athletic skills model: optimizing talent development through movement education. Routledge.

Strafford, B.W., Van Der Steen, P., Davids, K. and Stone, J.A., 2018. Parkour as a donor sport for athletic development in youth team sports: insights through an ecological dynamics lens. Sports medicine-open4(1), p.21.

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