The Startling Things That Happened When a Youth Sports Program Replaced Some Drill Time with Free Play

A radical experiment that could have backfired, didn't! Kids with more time for unstructured play and less for drills at sports practice ended up better players all around.

Steel Sports is a youth sports organization founded in 2011 with teams, leagues, camps and tournaments in nine states. Its 200 soccer coaches and 2,500 players are overseen by the Vice President of Player, Coach and Curriculum Development Ian Huges, a Welsh native who often spent time in his mom’s hometown of Liverpool. Hughes was a Senior Coach Educator at the Football Association of Wales — third oldest football association in the world! — before coming to the States.

The concept of adding free play to the Steel Sports program was first trialed in the Winter 2018 “Futsal” Program in New Jersey. Players in the club created their own mixed-age teams (within a two-year age span) and could include friends who weren’t members. They created their own roster and played games every Sunday.

There were no coaches, and referees and parents weren’t allowed in the gym!

Two staffers took care of the music – Samba – and the players self-reported the scores (solely to match up teams of equal ability in future games).

Then, two years ago, after diving into Let Grow’s materials on the transformative power of unstructured play (including this, this and this), Steel Sports started another pilot program:

A handful of soccer coaches devoted the first 10 or 15 minutes of every practice to free play. This initiative was driven by organization founder Warren Lichtenstein, and then-president Mark Cole, as they learned about the benefits of free play.

The kids loved it – but so did the coaches. And the parents! Teamwork, creativity, and joy all seemed to increase, so the practice was expanded to the entire sports program, which includes baseball and softball.

Steel Sports even hosted a baseball festival at its Long Island facility that featured “Sand Lot Games” – all organized by the players and played without coaches or umpires. High school-aged members of their Athlete Leadership Council supervised the younger players. Interestingly, some of the groups played 15 v 15 all evening, while another group split into three teams and rotated every inning so the teams took turns fielding / batting / cheering the other two!

Let Grow spoke with Hughes about how free play has changed the kids, the game, and the results.

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LET GROW: Were you a free play kid?

IAN HUGHES: Playing on the streets is where I started! When I go back to Liverpool now, it depresses me when I see on the walls, “No Ball Games.”

LG: That IS depressing. So let’s talk about Steel Sports bringing some free play back into kids’ lives. How is it changing things? 

Since adding free play, the kids RUN to practice

IH: What we’re seeing is very often the kids run to practice now, rather than walk, because they know they’re going straight into 10 or 15 minutes of free play.

LG: Wow! Is free play reserved just for the younger kids?

IH: No. I coached the 2002 boys – they graduated from high school this past year – and the 2004 and 2005 boys and they all love the free play. They move the goals together and then they play “soccer tennis”—getting the ball over the net. They make different rules, like the ball can bounce only once, or can’t bounce at all. I remember back when I was young we had three or four variations too.

When kids have to referee themselves, they realize that they can!

LG: But free play is taking a chunk of time from more formal soccer practice. How is it affecting their game?

IH: If there’s a problem on the field, what players would do previously was look to the coach, and the coach would determine the solution. Now players are happier coming up with their own solutions. This obviously involves communication, and that’s one massive thing I’ve seen from free play. I don’t know whether people were shy or didn’t feel comfortable, but the free play brought them out of their shells. They’re more comfortable with talking.

LG: That is a huge life skill! Overcoming social anxiety.

IH: The other thing I’ve seen is: During the structured games, when the ball goes out of play for a throw-in, everyone looks at the referee. And I’m going to say 90% of the people on the field KNOW whose ball it is. But in the free play, because there ISN’T any referee, 99% of the time the correct player throws it in and they’re not looking for guidance. And when someone takes up the ball and it is NOT their time to throw it in, then, again, compromise and discussion occur.

LG: And that’s “self-agency.” Those kids are taking control of the game – and their lives.

IH: What’s interesting is the first thing that struck me when I moved here three years ago is that everyone looked up to the referee to make that decision, and it’s still the case at times. But when there’s no referee involved, they do it themselves.

Turning kids into responsible young adults

LG: That’s what our co-founder, psychologist Peter Gray says all the time: When adults are running the show, the adults are the adults and the kids are kids. But when the adults step back…the KIDS are the adults. They’re the ones who organize the games, solve the problems, come up with new ways of doing things. Those skills are really important off the field, too. But, bottom line, Ian: for all the executive function your players are gaining, how are they doing in competition?

IH: We have a tournament called The Global Fives and my 2005 team entered it.

LG: And you coached them to victory?

IH: No I didn’t. I thought, “Okay, we do free play at the start of all our practices. Let’s put that into a kind of structured environment.”

LG: You mean…you let the kids COACH THEMSELVES in an actual tournament?

IH: Yes.

LG: And?

IH: They won the tournament in Massachusetts.

LG: Holy moly! Against how many other teams?

IH: There were about 30 in the whole competition – less in the 2005 group. But then then they went to Virginia –

LG: Without you again?

IH: Yes.

LG: And –?

IH: They won the whole competition.

LG: WOW! What do you think that happened?

The secret to developing leadership in kids

IH: When we went into that free play environment, your better players – your “captains” – ended up starting on the side as subs because they wanted to give info to their players on the field.

LG: You mean, they deliberately chose not to go right in? Why?

IH: When the coach is not there coaching, some of our older players – the ones with more experience – want to help their teammates and they feel that if they come to the side, they’re able to see the whole field and support their teammates.

LG: That’s like Advanced Placement Leadership Studies! Do you think that’s why your 2005 team won?

IH: Could be. All I can tell you is that I’m proud. Ultimately, we don’t want players to rely on the coach. We need independent thinkers on the field, and I think free play allowed independent thinking and critical thinking as part of Steel Sports.

Ian Hughes, Steel Sports