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

Lenore Skenazy

Published on: April 24, 2023

Two boys playing soccer

Editor's note: This article was first published on Let Grow, which provides free materials for schools and parents to promote childhood independence and resilience. It is reprinted here by permission.

Steel Sports is a youth sports organization founded in 2011 operating teams, leagues, camps and tournaments in nine states. Its 200 soccer coaches and 2,500 players are overseen by 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 — the third oldest football association in the world! — before coming to the United 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, a few 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 10–15 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-age members of its 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 and cheering on the other two.

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

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.”

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

Hughes: 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.

Let Grow: Free play takes up a chunk of time from more formal soccer practice. How is it affecting their game?

Hughes: 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.

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

Hughes: The other thing I’ve seen is that 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 percent of the people on the field know whose ball it is. But in the free play, because there isn’t any referee, 99 percent 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.

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

Hughes: What’s interesting is the first thing that struck me when I moved here 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.

Let Grow: 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?

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

Let Grow: And you coached them to victory?

Hughes: 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.”

Let Grow: You mean…you let the kids coach themselves in an actual tournament?

Hughes: Yes.

Let Grow: And?

Hughes: They won the tournament in Massachusetts.

Let Grow: Holy moly! Against how many other teams?

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

Let Grow: Without you again?

Hughes: Yes.

Let Grow: And?

Hughes: They won the whole competition.

Let Grow: Wow! Why do you think that happened?

Hughes: 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.

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

Hughes: 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.

Let Grow: That’s like advanced placement leadership studies! Do you think that’s why your 2005 team won?

Hughes: 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.

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