Powerful Play in Sports Performance, Part 2 – Brett Klika

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the physical and neurological benefits of facilitating play in your work with young athletes.  In case you missed it, here’s the Link to Part 1.  In Part 2, we’ll delve into some simple framework to make gamifying drills and activities quick and easy.

As performance coaches, we are often well versed in the pedagogy of teaching specific movement skills.  We’ve acquired a few fun-yet-fruitful activities and games along the way, but we can exhaust these rather quickly when working with kids on a daily basis.

The good news is that in order to maintain and build an arsenal of fun, engaging, and effective play-based activities, there’s no need to study and memorize the sacred almanacs of kids games.  With some simple guidelines, you can take the activities you’ve already had success with and make them a new, novel, and fun challenge.

While these guidelines tend to work best for grade school aged children, they are also effective for high school, college, and even adult populations.  

Consider the following game creation guidelines in order to engage your young athletes and develop the “intangibles” that play such a tremendous role in long term athletic development.

Guided Discovery- The Movement Variables

Play is a great teacher.  When we as coaches can guide play a bit, we can use it as a strategic tool to develop important skills.  

Guided discovery is the process of providing just enough direction so kids can experience not only the skill, but the process of learning.  During guided discovery, the focus is not so much on the precise development of a skill, but in the actions taken during the learning of that skill.  

Take a movement like a “skip”.  As a coach, we have a checklist of what a proper skip movement should entail.  However, instead of barking these commands to our athletes, guided discovery would walk them through the process of developing the skip movement on their own.

In order to do this, we would use “movement variables” to help them establish an internal context for the parameters of the movement.  “Walk with your knees high. Now walk with your knees low.  Walk like you’re on the moon reaching your hands up to the stars when you step.  Now leave the ground with every step, but keep your arms at your sides”.  

Through this “abstract” process, kids are developing an internal sense of movement efficiency and effectiveness.  They realize when they keep their arms at their sides, it’s harder to move.  They develop a feeling for the advantage of high knees.  

Instead of constant external correction, they are able to internalize and modify movement to make it better and more efficient.  

Infusing movement variables into warm-ups and familiar games not only makes them novel and fun, it further develops the body/brain connection within young athletes.  

To do this simply and quickly, merely take an established fundamental movement skill (squat, skip, lateral shuffle, push up, etc.) and pair it with 1 or more variables for effort (hard, soft, fast, slow, etc.), space (limbs, movement path), and/or relationships with people and objects (over, under, around, etc.).  

For example:

Fast-crawl backward while matching a partner in a zigzag path


Play Tag while skipping backward, arms remaining wide


Play dodgeball from the knees, crawling to the ball, only throwing with the left hand.

In both instances, a familiar activity is combined with a novel demand. The kids are learning context and parameters for movement while having fun with something “new”.  

Consider how this could be integrated into the activities you already do to increase engagement and coordination.

Watch guided discovery in action!

Creative Discovery- Word Adventures

While guided discovery activities have general parameters for movement, during creative discovery, no guidance is provided as children are free to discover different movement parameters on their own.  

Consider the words hop, roll, and explode.  How could each of these words be represented with movement?  How could they be combined in smooth transitions? What would adding punctuation do to the transitions between words?

For example: Hop. Roll, Explode!

Allowing the kids to interpret these movements and transitions on their own (with a general understanding of the vocabulary and punctuation conventions) combines powerful coordination and cognition.  

Since the concepts are completely novel and unfamiliar, kids must manually develop new movement patterns.  More learning, more coordination, more sensory awareness.  

And lots of fun!

With young kids, consider telling a story where they interpret movement words as part of an adventure.  Use nonsense or completely unfamiliar words to challenge them during warm ups or other activities.  Instruct them to move like animals, cartoon characters, or other objects.  

Realize the complex inner workings of a young child’s neuromuscular system when they have to create a new movement pattern from scratch.  

Powerful stuff!

Watch creative discovery in action!

Object Modification

While guided and creative discovery work best with grade school aged children, object modification is a simple game creation strategy for all levels of children (and adults)!

Consider games that require a ball or implement.  Merely by changing the size, shape, or other characteristic of the ball or implement, a whole new set of neuromuscular demands is created.  

For example, think of your favorite team “keep away” game.  How would the parameters of the game change with different implements? A tennis ball? Soccer ball? Frisbee? Balloon?

With young or uncoordinated children, this could give them a greater opportunity for success (i.e. balloon volleyball, beachball baseball).  For more advanced kids, this could highlight certain game tactics, improve conditioning, and/or develop additional skills sets.

A few years ago I was working with a women’s soccer team, I was playing a team keep-away game similar to soccer, but they were throwing a tennis ball to one another.  I replaced the tennis ball with my baseball hat.  

Immediately, they had to change tactics.  While they could look for a long shot with the tennis ball, they had to move constantly in close quarters with the hat. Successful exchanges required quick decisions, anticipation, and field movement.

Not only did it increase the conditioning demand, the coach loved the tactics it highlighted!

Consider how familiar games could be modified with different objects!

As you know, gamifying activities and drills can be a powerful way to increase athlete engagement while enhancing skill development.  Creating new games and activities does not have to be complex.  

The suggestions above provide a quick and simple framework to create games and other fun, novel activities to develop lifelong athleticism with your young athletes.   


Brett Klika is the CEO of SPIDERfit Kids and is an expert in Youth Development.  He was named the 2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year.

Brett is giving away a free pocket-guide with hundreds of movement variable combinations for warm ups and other activities,

CLICK HERE to get SPIDERfit’s Ultimate Youth Warm Up Cheat Sheet.

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