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Can Krashen's Acquisition/Learning theory save youth sports?

How to divide work and play?

A clue form Linguistics—Krashen’s Hypothesis

USC Linguist Steven Krashen stumbled on to something one day when he was trying to teach a young Japanese immigrant english. He was force feeding her, trying to teach her to speak through a step by step academic like method and it was not working.

He knew that he was doing something wrong and began to see the overall process as a dichotomy, the two phases separate and best if one happens before the other. It led to one of the seminal theories in Linguistics, Krashen’s Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis.

Krashen believes that to learn a language successfully (fluently, without accent) one must go through two phases:

Krashen’s Monitor Theory (Acquisition vs. Learning)

The learner must:

1) acquire the language

2) before they try to learn it.

Acquisition is a unconscious process, while learning a language is conscious, focused on rules and correct form.

Sounds a lot like the perfect model of developing expert performance in soccer. The soccer player must “acquire” through play soccer before they “learn” it through Deliberate Practice.

1-Early “play” where learning is unconscious, invisible, autonomous—this is the Acquisition phase 2-Later “work” that requires focus, effort and feedback—this is the deliberate Practice phase

While there has been a great deal of attention paid to the “work” side of things. there has been very little understanding of play in development. We argue that the perfect developmental model will utilize both, at the correct times when the brain is most open.

At the younger ages 5-13, the brain seems adverse to FOCUS and CONCENTRATION, and open to PLAY and EXPLORATION. At these ages learning takes place best in play —unknowing, the opposite of focus, unconsciously, feeding supercharged learning right into the autonomous skill bank.

Here in the US our youth soccer, this acquisition period is not well understood and we tend to only focus on the learning. But, if it was handled correctly, would the acquisition phase contribute to the growth of a player?

Roberto Ayala is small. Maybe 5'9". He is soft spoken and courteous. He takes in everything and pauses to speak, and in this case he was taking a very log pause. We met at Soccer Ex in Rio. He was a dominant center back, having captained Argentina more than Maradonna and leading them and his club team Valencia (Spain) through many great competitions. He has always been one of my heroes for how he can bring the ball down ("Soccer Tennis") We asked him, what was the most important time in your up bringing as a player? He said when he was 12 and he joined River Plate Academy. But wait, we asked, what about before that? What was happening when you were 7? 10? 11?

“oh, I played everyday,” he said, “morning noon and night.”

Do you think that had anything to do with your development? We asked.

"I never thought of it that way...that the free play i was doing when I was 8, 9 10, 11 was important to my development...I thought I was just better than everyone else. But it must be true, because I was playing more that the others. Still, after signing with River I still played with my friends whenever I could."

Another example from an area where we do produce expert performers (at least in Minnesota) is Hockey. In a recent interview, USA Hockey Captain and Minnesota Wild star, Zach Parise was

asked a very similar question as Roberto Ayala,

“What was the most important time in your development as a hockey player?” they asked

“It was when I was a sophomore at Shattuck St. Mary’s.” (a famous Minnesota Hockey school where among others Sidney Crosby also attended).

I would argue (and maybe Krashen would as well) that it was not. Zach’s father was the former NHL player JP Parise, he grew up around hockey, JP Parise ran the program at Shattuck. His early environment was surrounded by hockey a love of that was around Zach since birth. The most important time I would argue, was the wonderful environment set up by his father.

Interestingly, both Ayala and Parise had an amazing acquisition phase of development and neither gave it much thought.

The 1st rule of Free Play is: You do not talk about Free Play. The 2nd rule of free play is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FREE PLAY.

Roberto Ayala had no idea. Zach Parise had no idea. They very best have no idea. If they knew, if they understood, perhaps it would not have worked so well. Both are world class in their fields. Parise in hockey, Ayala in soccer. Because they had no idea, because their learning took place covertly, invisibly Playing everyday.

The real question is, did they develop so well because it was so totally unconscious, so filled with all the principles of Free Play (intrinsic, fun, immediate) that they were super charged during that acquisition phase?

There is some support to this...

Soberlak and Cote (2001) in retrospective looks at hockey players, each spoke about this phase in similar terms

“I would be at school all day and then want to hang out with my buddies. What were we going to do? We loved hockey, so why not hang out with your buddies and play at the same time. I never went out to play street hockey to polish my skills or whatever, we just played to play. We'd never go out and set pylons up and practice because we wanted to get better- We'd just go out and have fun.”

Maybe that’s way it has to be, after all, Cote never mentions ‘improvement’ as a principle of Free Play,

Acquisition Phase

  1. A must to acheive fluency, according to Krashen, it’s more important than ‘learning.’

  2. To work best it must stick the the principles of free play

  3. If you do it to try to get better, it will not work.

‘Learning’ Phase

  1. Best to take place later

  2. To work best it must stick the the principles of Deliberate Practice

  3. Fun is found in the delay of rewards

Because the current models focus on learning and leave little time for acquisition, they are unlikely to produce fluent, nuanced soccer literacy. In the PBJ model optimal development will utilize both, at the correct times when the brain is most open.

So let's set up beautiful acquisition phases for all kids. Remember the first and second rule. Parents, get off your lawn chair and play, model the joy. Coaches, there is no shortcut. Don't be a hurry to coach, when the kids are completed with play (acquisition) they will let you know and they are ready to enjoy the more difficult work required.

Play as kids powers us for the hard work of adulthood. Play is the work of the child and work is the play of adults.