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  • Writer's pictureDon Draxler

What is Ball Mastery?

This entry was my response to a question posed to coaches in the membership section with Players Development Project PDP. I highly recommend checking them out.

Who Decides?

Is ball mastery the process of becoming more familiar with and improving our ability to manipulate a ball? At what age does someone become a master, and who gets to decide? These terms, in general, seem to steer us toward a path of adulthood and professionalism, but what about the joy of childish exploration?

Are we failing our children by focusing on structured patterns of ball manipulation coached by others, rather than allowing them to discover the myriad ways their bodies can interact with a ball?

Consider our children: Would you prefer your child to walk efficiently, then skip efficiently, or would you rather they roll, run, skip, trot, and then jump freely, driven by intrinsic motivation to follow their impulses? Of course, they must master the fundamentals and techniques of these movements, but we don't teach children how to walk a particular way; they find it themselves, with our guidance to prevent harm. Mistakes and occasional accidents are part of the learning process, helping them discern what's efficient and what's not.

Following directions and drills, while important, lack the vivacity of a living, breathing experience. As Mark Twain aptly put it, "I have never let schooling interfere with my education."

Traditional schooling begins with fundamentals:

  • Learning your A, B, C's

  • Memorizing times tables

  • Write your name

  • Sitting quietly in your desk

  • Waiting for permission to eat, use the bathroom, or be excused

These fundamentals provide the structure for a day in traditional school. However, the true foundation lies in loving the games. It's about learning how to navigate through space while manipulating a ball in countless games without someone dictating every move. Coaches must relinquish some control over outcomes, which may feel unsettling but is fundamental for fostering true mastery.

Do What We Know Works

Instead of imposing structured drills, why not consider tag games or other varied games? If we believe young players need to become comfortable with the ball, we can introduce constraints and let them participate in designing games. We often rush to take over young people's experiences with good intentions, but real mastery emerges when there's room for exploration.

Dr. Richard Bailey, Head of the International Council of Sports Science for Physical Education ICSSPE, shared a story about the importance of technique and creativity in movement on Way of Champions Podcast with John O'Sullivan. Paraphrased, it goes like this: "I'm thinking about being a dancer, yet for now, I'm going to be a builder." Years later, the young person says, "I think now I want to be a dancer," but someone responds, "Building is your style." When technique precedes creativity and exploration, we risk becoming like robots, solidifying our style and losing creativity. Exploration should precede technique; technique should evolve from exploration.

Keep Doing What We've Always Done, or...

Do we want sports to mirror how schools teach cognitive subjects? Isolated drills may lead to that outcome. Let's reconsider how we approach learning and what truly excites and engages children. Creating different games, altering sizes, forming diverse groupings, exploring various formats, and playing tag games can all contribute to mastering ball techniques without making it a chore.

Albert Einstein famously said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." We all care deeply about our children's development, and we wouldn't be involved otherwise.

In the end, I want my child, just like yours, to fearlessly cultivate trust in their instincts and decision-making abilities. We all want what's best for them, and it's worth asking whether rigid fundamentals and forced mastery align with that vision. If you were a child just starting to play a sport, wouldn't you want the freedom to explore different answers to questions posed by a living, breathing coach with uniqueness and vitality?

How Would You Support Your Child?

As Walt Whitman beautifully expressed, "That you are here—that life exists and identity, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse." How will you support your child's verse in the grand play of life?


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