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Balancing young athletes' training with playing games

Patrick J Cohn PhD explains why young athletes should have fun when participating in sport.

Young athletes are motivated to participate in sport for many different reasons. Most young athletes want to have fun and sports allow them to participate in playing games. Some athletes like to feel part of a group, so they can socialize with other athletes and sometimes test their skills with similar-age athletes. Furthermore, sports can be an escape from the regular school day for many children in which they can become immersed in play activities.


As an example, my daughter loves to learn how to play tennis with other youngsters via an instructor or group leader. Her desire to play sports comes from being with other athletes and playing challenge games the instructor teaches. However, she is less likely to have fun when it's just her alone with dad! In the beginning young athletes need to have lots of game time because they associate playing games with other athletes as enjoyable. The enjoyment that youngsters experience from games creates a natural interest in the sport, making them want to continue and keep coming back for more. Eventually, they will be motivated for other reasons; hopefully for the love of sports and competition.

As a child becomes "hooked" on soccer and loves the game, she/he will naturally want to get better and improve their skill level. As young athletes progress from beginning to intermediate levels, they soon want to master the skills of the game. They understand that training and instruction will develop skills faster. So instead of soccer being just fun and games, it becomes more of an exercise in mastery and skill improvement. For this reason, you want to balance both training (drills) and instruction with playing games to keep it fun while ensuring skill development.

When I work with my students, I want them to have a balance between training mindset and performance or competitive mindset. Too much training alone for the sake of skill development can be boring for some athletes and not allow them to transfer their skills to the competition. When athletes approach competition, I suggest that they play more games and scrimmages and do less training, drilling, and instruction. The best way to develop confidence in games is to play in actual game situations encountered in competition. More game time will help a young athlete transfer what he or she has learned in training as new skills in competition.

When a child has fun in sports, they will be motivated to improve and love competition. Later, young athletes can begin to master the complex skills of their sport and learn about strategy. Young athletes must practice and train consistently to develop self-confidence and see improved performance in competition. However, some athletes can become obsessed with practice routines to the extent that they forget about why they are training and practicing. A child can fall in love with practice routines for practice sake and forget why they are practicing. I call this being stuck in the training mindset, which is not healthy for peak performance in competition.

Keep in mind that the purpose of practice, training, and instruction is to develop competence - then confidence - and to prepare an athlete to perform well in a competition. This is why balancing scrimmage or playtime with training and drilling is essential.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • COHN, P. (2006) Balancing young athletes' training with playing games. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 33/ June), p. 11-12

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • COHN, P. (2006) Balancing young athletes' training with playing games [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Patrick Cohn works with athletes and teams worldwide from a variety of sports backgrounds. As the president and founder of Peak Performance Sports (Orlando, Florida), Dr Cohn is dedicated to instilling confidence and composure and teaching practical mental game skills to help athletes, teams, and corporate professionals perform at maximum levels.