Play to Win

Learning is serious business. Whether in sport, academics, or our careers, we can spend thousands of hours and potentially even more dollars trying to improve our knowledge and abilities. Sometimes, however, in our efforts to excel, we forget one of the most serious parts of learning: the need to play.

Reaching the highest levels of any field–and certainly the highest levels of fencing–requires years of practice and coaching directed toward continual improvement. Realizing this, athletes, coaches, and parents often look for and design highly structured training to facilitate the development of the skills and abilities necessary to win at ever higher levels. As important as that training is, we must remember that, in addition to structured practice, we should also engage in “play”.

When we play, we partake in an activity simply for its own enjoyment. We experiment and try new things, free from concerns of winning and losing. This opens up new educational opportunities. As James F. Christie and Kathleen Roskos write in their paper Standards, Science, and the Role of Play in Early Literacy Education*:

Play, with its freedom from insistence on the here and now, introduces the flexibility that converts the rigidities of skill instruction into the realities of skill use by the child. Lacking this, children may be taught, but they may not learn in ways that evolve toward higher levels of skill performance and that, in the end, are educationally significant.

By spending some of our training time fencing without particular instructions from the coach, without worrying about winning, and taking a playful approach–trying different things, not allowing ourselves to be confined by any set of “right and wrong“–we create new avenues of learning that are lost to us if we rely entirely on structured practice for our development. This idea is important for fencers of all ages, but especially for children.

The work of researchers Jean Cote, Joseph Baker, and others** has demonstrated the significant impact play can have for the future athletic prospects of children. Top athletes are repeatedly shown to have spent more time engaged in “deliberate play”–backyard games of soccer, pickup games of baseball, etc.–as children than lower level players, in addition to the time they put toward structured practice.

Along with exposure to a wide range of sports when they are young, fencers of all ages can benefit greatly from time spent being inventive, unorthodox, and playful on the strip. It will improve their coordination, increase their understanding of the sport and of their bodies, allow them to formulate new technical and tactical solutions, intensify their motivation, and overall help them become better fencers. Play is an integral piece of learning to be creative on the strip. And, of course, it’s fun.

It may be difficult for the coach or parent to embrace the idea of play as a valuable piece of training. It’s easy to dismiss play as simply “goofing off”. After all, play requires no central authority pouring knowledge into the empty canister of the fencer’s mind. It requires coaches and parents to relinquish a certain degree of control of the athlete’s training and recognize how misconceived the canister metaphor is for the process of learning. However, while it may be a blow to the ego, those same coaches and parents will find that handing the athletes some autonomy in their training through play will yield greater results than structured practices alone.

So, on our journey to improve ourselves and our abilities, and to constantly learn more, we should remember that sage command we were repeatedly given as children:

Go play.

*The parallels between the importance of play in sports education and academic education are great. See Play = Learning(edited by Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta M. Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek) for the Christie/Roskos paper as well as many others that detail the value of play in the education of children.

**See Essential Processes for Attaining Peak Performance (edited by Dieter Hackfort and Gershon Tenenbaum) and Expert Performance in Sports: Advances in Research on Sport Expertise (edited by Janet Starkes and K. Anders Ericsson) for some of the relevant papers.