Sometimes the best way to learn is just to play the game. That doesn't mean 'let the game be the teacher', but rather, put the players in environments and conditions in which they can experiment and learn. I think this can be a great supplement to a curriculum or session if used correctly. While not entirely "free" play, coaches can bring out learning outcomes through different versions of 'play'. (It's a great way to incorporate elements of the social corner of the game).
Here are just a few thoughts on manipulating free play to achieve different learning outcomes:
Learning Outcome - Overcoming Adversity
Manipulate the teams. Arrange them by height and see how the biggest players get on against the smallest (and vice versa). Pick the teams by birthday and let the youngest players take on the oldest. Perhaps place the best player on a weaker team and the weakest player on a stronger team. Use any of the above to gauge how players react to the circumstances - who builds up the weaker players around them v. who complains and moans about the standard of their team. Which of the smaller players steps up their game when faced with all the physically imposing players?!
Learning Outcome - Leadership, Ownership and Social Dynamics
Give the players all of your equipment. Step back. Observe.
Let them make their own fields, pick their own teams, create their own games and rules. Want to play with three goals - why not? Your team has two goalkeeper's - sounds good! The attackers can go behind the goal and score on either side - that's allowed - it's your game!
Giving the player's ownership of a session or two won't turn them into unruly tyrants for the rest of the season. It's a great way to step back and learn something new about your players mentality and try something that too few coaches master - the art of observation.
Learning Outcome - Conflict Resolution
No referee. This one's my favourite and one I'm guilty of not using enough. Instead of letting players decide who's ball it is - or who it came off of last, I'll often shout/commentate over the top of the game if it's a red ball or a Real Madrid corner. Watch what happens when you make it competitive and let them run their own games. (Fair Warning - you may want to warn the parents ahead of time as there are going to be upset players afterwards).
There might be arguments. There might be tears. But ultimately (especially at the younger ages) it's an invaluable lesson and chance to teach players about how they should react, how to resolve conflicts and how to do it themselves instead of turning to the nearest adult to do it for them.
Today's players are constantly placed in structured environments, dropped off at this, shuttled across to that and rarely have time in their schedule's for play. As coaches, we have the ability to give them some of this back, show them how they can take the game that we love so much and go and play it on their own.
Most importantly, the above learning outcomes are manipulated ahead of time and require some planning. If done correctly, the coach shouldn't be making coaching points but instead taking a step back and making note of teachable moments for the end of the session. Let them play!
What are your thoughts on play? How does the pay to play model we see today affect free play? As always, I'd love to hear from you. Comments are below and you can find on me twitter: @deanatk