The pressure and desire of athletes, parents of athletes, and coaches for athletes to specialize in one sport and seek methods/modes of “sport specific” training with the goal of reaching elite levels of competition continues to become more prevelant even with the risk of injury and burnout. A 2007 study found that “unstructured” play, that may not even be the same sport as athlete will go on to play at the elite level is just as beneficial as sport specific practice and competition at developing expert levels of sport related perception and decision making skill.
Berry, J, Abernethy, B, and Cote, J. The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision making skills. J Sport and Exerc Psych 30: 685- 708, 2008.
This study retroactively examined the structured (organized individual and team practice and competition) and deliberate play (athlete organized “pick up” and small-sided games) participation across a variety of sports/activities of elite Australian Rules Football (AFL) athletes. Athletes were classified by coaches within their league as “expert” or “less skilled” in the areas of game related perception and decision making skill.
The sports/activities “expert” and “less-skilled” decision makers played and the amount of time spent on structured activities or deliberate play was retroactively recorded from age 6-18. Over this recording period both groups participated in a similar number of sports/acivities (meaning neither group concentrated solely on AFL). More importantly the factor that differentiated between expert and less skilled decision makers was not structured activity vs deliberate play or even if they were playing the Austrailian Rules Football. Rather the differentiating factor was the amount of hours participating in Australian Rules Football and other “invasion” games such as basketball or soccer in which a team must advance to an opponents territory and score, regardless of how structured the activity is.
In short, this study demonstrates that while structured practice is important to the development of elite level perception and decision making, an athlete can reach these levels of performance by accruing significant amounts experience in a combination of a wide variety of similar games in organized practice/competition or athlete organized game PLAY situations.