Play gets a bad rap. We call it kid’s stuff—silly and impractical. But this attitude doesn’t take into account the huge neuroplastic benefits of playful exploration. You can use play as an incredibly effective and enjoyable way to improve your quality of movement. Let’s dig into the why and how a bit, shall we?
Use Self-Directed Practice
More and more evidence points to self-directed practice as the most effective way to learn and perform new skills, from suturing1 to punching.2 We probably understand this intuitively. When we’re practicing something according to our own schedule and level of enjoyment, we’re more likely to stick with it. There’s something innately gratifying about taking ownership of our training and practice. Play is intrinsically self-directed. You go until it stops being enjoyable, and then you switch to something new.
Introduce Constraints-Based Exploration
When playing with our quality of movement, we need more guidance than simply “do better.” This is the value of introducing constraints. Adding a constraint to a movement (for example, balancing a book on your hand while rolling from back to belly) forces you to bring your attention to an external focus. It gives you a specific task to accomplish, one that gives you instant feedback to whether or not you completed the movement successfully. We also know that an external focus of attention improves performance relative to an internal focus.3
We’ve talked before about the benefits of variation in your movement practice. More so than rote repetition, variation in our movements is critical to the learning process.4 No toddler reps out Turkish get ups to learn how to walk. They constantly explore novel variations on how to organize their bodies for the ultimate task: balance in the gravitational field.
So How Do We Play?
This seems like an odd conversation to have, doesn’t it? When did we forget how to play?
I find the simplest way to bring self-direction, constraints, and variation into my practice is to work with time blocks rather than sets and reps. Within a given time block, how many subtle variations can you find in your squat? Can you change up your stance? The bar’s position? How many quality repetitions can you get in a 5 minute window?
How many ways can you find to get up and down from the ground? How many ways can you enter a handstand? The options are limitless. Yes, it takes a little bit of thoughtful creativity, but the benefits to your quality of movement are well worth it.
Figure out your movement:
1. Safir, O, et al. (2013). “Self-directed practice schedule enhances learning of suturing skills“. Canadian Journal of Surgery. doi: 10.1503/cjs.019512.
2. Halperin, I., Chapman, D. W., Martin, D. T., Lewthwaite, R., & Wulf, G. (2016). “Choices enhance punching performance of competitive kickboxers“. Psychological Research, 1-8.
3. Wulf, G & Su, J. (2007): “An External Focus of Attention Enhances Golf Shot Accuracy in Beginners and Experts“. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.
4. Carey JR, et al. “Neuroplasticity promoted by task complexity”. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, 33(2005):24-31.