Playing for Love of the Game

January 20, 2016

“Find out what your children want to do, and if it is decent and honorable, advise them to do it.” — Harry Truman

Just a few Saturdays ago, Maryland’s Melo Trimble, the pre-season Big Ten player of the year, calmly took the inbound pass with 22 seconds left to play.

Wisconsin had just come back to tie the game on a step-back three-point shot. The Kohl Center was going wild. Trimble brought the ball over half court, waited until the clock had just 5 seconds left, then dribbled forward and rose up from about 25 feet out. With a hand in his face, he calmly sank the game winning three-point shot. And he burst into a smile that reflected much more than just a winner’s excitement… it was the smile of someone playing the game they love.

Indeed, Melo’s smile has been remarked upon — he’s earned the nickname “the smiling assassin” — but  as the Washington Post notes, his grin can be considered reflective of the fact that the young man “has not needed incentives to play the game he loves.” He plays with such joy, even during long, difficult games.

How, in this age of specialization where many players work out year-round, go to training, and play on three different teams, can they feel that same joy? The answer lies in discovering what drives young athletes to keep going with such a brutal schedule.

Is he or she doing it for the pot of gold:  a college scholarship or an NBA career? Or are they playing because they love this great game?

I spent the whole summer before I started high school working out and attending camps. By August, I was burned out. I came home and told my father that I wanted to quit basketball. It wasn’t fun anymore. His advice: take a few weeks off.

A little break did the trick, and after a rest, I wanted to get back in the gym. His suggestion taught me an important lesson: players should play the game because they love it and because they want to play. If you want to play, then you’ll be excited to go to the gym. If you’re tired and overworked and you don’t love what you’re doing, then getting to the gym is a struggle every time.

Kobe Bryant has often spoken about his love for the game, and his recent letter, “Dear Basketball,” sums up how his passion for playing has driven him since he was a child. How do you as a parent or coach — or both — encourage love for the game? My playbook includes the following:

  1. Always remember: In the end, this is a game and if it’s fun a player will want to continue to work at it.
  2. Joy should be part of playing. When people are at play, their concentration and focus levels are very high. Playing with joy starts with remembering #1 — it’s a game.
  3. Let playing be the child’s choice. We cannot choose for our children what they love. We can only encourage them to do whatever it is they choose!
  4. Expose children to different sports and they will find what they love the best.
  5. Remember that players develop at different ages. Sometimes early development can lead to a lack of motivation or a belief that they will always be good. Likewise, a player that loves to play the game can develop the skills necessary if they are motivated by a love of the sport.
  6. Parents cannot live and die by every shot, every decision by the coach, or every performance by their child in a game. There is no quicker way to kill the love of the game in a player.

Players who love to play are better positioned to overcome obstacles, practice independently, compete to the best of their ability, and stay motivated to get better.  As coaches and parents, we always have to remember to make the game fun for kids and remind ourselves how lucky we are.

We get to have an influence on young peoples’ lives, and we get to interact with them on a daily basis.  We are the luckiest people in the world.

To learn more about inspiring love of the game and keeping players feeling positive, take a look at our last post on motivating performance.