The Paradox of Play

There has been a recent uprising in approaching exercise and skill development with ‘play’ in mind. Enjoyment should form a fundamental part of physical training (or any training for that matter) as it breeds consistency and longevity.

Unfortunately, opting for a ‘play’ approach when it comes to planning your program as an adult is flawed.

Turning back the clock

Children have the ability to quickly learn skills from the piano to swinging across monkey bars like a chimpanzee. They only have to dedicate a small portion of time relative to their adult counterparts to achieve the same result. When a child masters the monkey bars, she doesn’t have the intent of doing so, but sees other kids having fun and decides that she too wants to have fun. This hedonistic approach is what fuels a child’s skill development.

What happens next is simple. After observing a fun-looking skill, the child attempts the movement, often failing many times in the process. Through continued trial and error, she eventually develops competency.

Many factors contribute to why the young learn with such ease and pace. For one, they are not frightened by failure. Also, their maturing brains have the capacity to develop motor patterns at a rate far greater than that of an adult via neural plasticity.

The power of habits

Habits are why adults can’t approach skill development with only ‘play’ in mind. Habits can be related to work, sport or lifestyle, and strengthen over time. Western civilised society fosters certain habits, such as spending long periods of time sitting, which in turn creates imbalances. The development of tight pectoral muscles, drawing the shoulders forward into a slouched posture being a prime example.

Faulty movement patterns arise too.

You see, children are not afflicted with these flaws to the same degree because they are afforded more movement variability. They are not yet shackled to a 9-5 job which requires long periods of sitting, nor do they rely on Netflix for their entertainment, lessening the load on their rump.

First with the head, then with the heart

A playful attitude towards skill development for an adult will unlikely lead to the results that a child can achieve. Although it’s crucial to keep ‘play’ in mind, it cannot be relied upon when it comes to achieving training-related goals.

This is where conditioning comes in.

Conditioning isn’t as sexy as the play aspect of training but plays the part of countering imbalances. For example, assuming your goal is to improve your weighted squat, conditioning work may focus on improving glute activation (which may be compromised thanks to sitting) through exercises like the hip thruster. Breaking old habits takes time. This is another reason why an adults progress is slowed relative to a child.

So what does this all mean?

‘First with head and then with the heart’. This is the motto with which Peekay, the main character from Bryce Courtney’s ‘The Power of One’, lives by, allowing him to achieve the goals which he has set himself.

Approach training pragmatically. Know that conditioning forms a vital part of your program and progress. At the same time, maintain a degree of exuberance. A child-like approach makes training enjoyable as well as sustainable.

What are your thoughts on ‘play’ as it applies to training? Leave a comment below.


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