Fun is an often-used word when it comes to children's activities. We all seem to be addicted to it. It's just a word of course, and open to interpretation. But in my experience, I'm not so sure Fun is all it's cracked up to be. Children can have fun throwing stones at passing cars, or breaking windows for example - it doesn't mean they're doing anything useful. Fun can be at other people's expense. Most often, fun is a smile and a happy ending. Fun to me conjures up images of clowns and jokes and silliness. Fun is funny. Fun is having a vaguely good time. Fun is all well and good, but really - is that all we're aiming for?
Here's how a leading composer describes their experience of leading a piece of music:
“You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”
Or here is a leading figure-skater:
“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean, everything went right, everything felt good . . . It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, it’s like everything goes automatically without thinking . . . it’s like you’re on automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it, because it’s a part of it all.”
Or here's Ayrton Senna, describing his win in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988:
"I was already on pole, and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel."
Anyone who knows how to get deeply lost in the flow of activity, rythym or movement - whether that be in dance, music, football - knows that the word Fun does not do the experience justice at all: Flow is a different ball park to Fun. Children may not have the eloquence to describe such a state in the way the composer does, but I believe that children are capable of reaching a similar kind of Flow state through (the right kind of) football.
We are short-changing our kids if we aim for Fun and nothing more. Finding a pathway to Flow can be life-changing. For the lucky few who have the kind of football opportunities and environments where they can get lost in the hazy timeless present of a game of football, it can be thrilling beyond satisfaction. Flow can provide for some children the only entry point to a world of expression, spontaneity and one-ness in an otherwise stuffy (but fun!) classroom existence.
I haven't yet worked out why we're all here, plonked on this crazy planet. But it strikes me that Joy and Peace are two things worth striving for. They both seem to me to be the end product of a life worth living. Not all the children we coach will end up being paid to play football in adulthood, but if we can give them pockets of their week where they can deeply immerse themselves in football, then their existence will be brightened and the world will be a better place. So lay off the coaching and the well-intended interruptions of their game, and let them find some joy and peace of mind.
* * *
"Was that fun?" asks mum as she picks up Billy from practice. Wouldn't it be great if little serious Billy turned round and said "Mum, it was intense, joyful and satisfying, I was completely immersed in the game, such that time stood still. Practice tonight left me feeling complete."
We might not be able to give them the words to describe it, but let's aim higher than Fun - let's see if we can give them the rewards of the deep flow experience. Here's some pointers on how to deliver sessions that give children access to Flow states:
- Games, games, games. Not odd, modified ones where you have to stay in a zone, or you can only touch the ball twice. Just normal games - no need to be clever here - two teams, goal at each end. Small-sided so everyone is involved, all the time. 3v3 is perfect, or 4v4.
- No stoppages. Ball is "re-cycled" i.e. one ball leaves the playing area, another comes in. Indoor facility is better as walls act as rebound surfaces and balls that go out of bounds are never far away, so play is not stopped for long.
- Games that are equal, such that all children have a chance of success. This means grouping children into teams, and teams into games, based on ability and physicality. In football, the challenge is set by the other children in the game, so the coach needs to be expert in recognising where each child might fit into the graph to the right. Noticing that a child is in the "control" zone for example, a coach might move them to a trickier game to increase the challenge and encourage flow to happen.
- No distractions. No coaching. No parental instruction from sideline. In fact, no parents around at all may help for some children. One of the key components of flow is a loss of self-consciousness. Sometimes music can help I find (thumping, old-school, housey tunes for example).
And finally, here's Csikszentmihalyi - the grand-daddy of Flow (he gets into the good bit about 8-9 mins in):