The most talented players, unless intrinsically motivated, and that motivation must include helping other players play well around them, are very few and far between. When the most talented players play well, they have no checks and balances that gauge their performance in a game. The only true gauge is not winning or losing on the scoreboard, but how many positive experiences they can be rewarded for. But if they are still playing when they are not playing well (post puberty) they lose their desire and impetus to change their behavior and, ultimately, their style of play.
The amygdala is a part of the brain that stores all your past events, good and bad, so you need way more positive events in that storage facility so it is easier for the negative ones to be overridden as stressful situations arise and you go back to that memory bank to make a withdrawal. The Hippocampus which is part of the Limbic system stores memories. For example, if you are having a bad day at practice during a scrimmage and you are not taken out; your brain feels that you are performing good enough to stay in. That level of play is not good enough, whether it be during practice or a game, but your brain is using that as a measuring stick in that area on how to perform. Therefore, your brain is confused as to how to get better. Just like in a classroom when you don’t understand the assignment. Your past experiences, which are not always positive because of the stress and importance put on winning, are overridden by the front of the brain trying to fix the problem through thought not muscle memory actions. The prefrontal cortex in your brain decides it’s time to intervene and there you go thinking when you should be acting and reacting. This just adds to your confusion and stress level. The hypothalamus starts to release hormones to your body in reaction to that stress. The reservoir is not being filled with earned playing time so there is no reinforcement in the brain to get better.
It’s why you can sit and go back in and play better when you are not playing well. You can clear your brain from having to think during the stressful game situation. When you go back in, you’re fresh and your muscle memory can hopefully override the frontal cortex desire to think about the stress and react to it. Hopefully, you are more relaxed, you start to have fun and enjoy the moment instead of thinking about it.
It is why equal play is so important for prepuberty kids. We call it our EPUT project. We advocate equal play under ten for all kids. Will it happen? That is truly not the point. We want the discussion about why, in 2016, this could be a sound alternative for kids quitting youth sports. We believe it could affect the obesity and Type II diabetes problem by giving these kids an environment in which they can stay active and have fun. There are many other reasons why this is a good idea. They all need the base first. They must build a reservoir of positive experiences. They must not fear trying new and creative things on the youth sports teams they play on.
Kids need and WANT to try different things; this allows them to do it in a safe environment without adults’ egos coming into play. This also explains why pickup games are so important. If the atmosphere on their youth sports team is filled with a “winning is most important” atmosphere or even trying to teach how important winning and losing are, the players do not build that reservoir with positive reinforcement. The memories from the Amygdala are not positive. The pickup game inherently has an atmosphere that builds up their positive reservoir because the children are relaxed but still competitive. They have fun, they play better, they get better, they are healthier and winning and losing takes a back seat to the enjoyment and the journey of playing with friends.
THE BRAIN GAME: Part I
Most people when discussing youth sports focus on the brain and how it is affected by concussions, and rightly so. However, the brain has a huge affect on how children play, coaches coach, and parents view their children playing. Let’s start by analyzing the more talented players. Here is why most of the youth sports through to high school varsity teams are failing and why they are so frustrating. The most talented players keep playing. They keep playing even when their play is poor, but inside they know when they are not playing well. So, their brain reinforces the poor play because they are not taken out. The brain tells them what they are doing is OK. So when they get in a game and something bad happens both parts of their training, good and bad, habits learned in practice, are reinforced in the games they play. The bench players, no matter how well they play, for the most part, are taken out immediately for their mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how small a mistake is made, the bench player gets blistered when he comes out of the game. Their brains become a reservoir of reinforcement. They don’t see playing as fun, just another stress-filled part of their youth sport’s and high school experience.