Play Your Way To New Skills & Better Movement

Stop taking yourself so seriously.  You can have fun while improving your mobility, your strength, and your work capacity.  Read on to learn how...

I was talking to an Olympic lifting coach the other day who was asking me how to improve shoulder mobility for handstands.  After talking him through a few of my favorite processes, he said:

"Ok, I'll have to find time to program these in."

To which I replied: "Nah, I'd just play around with them before you warm up."

It may sound like semantics, but the mindset we use to approach our training can have a huge impact on our results.  Personally, when I look back at some of my biggest movement milestones such as:

  • Strict muscle up
  • Tree branch tuck pop up
  • Handstand press
  • Pistol squat

I realize that I achieved them not through grueling training (or even semi-dedicated training), but through playful exploration.  Yes, I had equipped my body to handle those demands, but I nailed those skills after many many bouts of play.  When looking to acquire a new skill, or improve your quality of movement, the "softer" approach of play is often far more effective than formal training.  Let's dig into what makes play so effective.

What Qualifies As Play?

Play is notoriously hard to pin down.  Most folks simply can't agree on what qualifies as "play".  With that in mind though, there are certainly common themes:

  • It's movement that isn't directly related to survival
  • It's spontaneous and voluntary
  • It isn't work
  • It often involves repetition with variation
  • It requires an absence of stressors

Some folks simply sum it up by saying that play occurs when animals are warm, fat, and happy (1).  

Why Is Play So Effective?

Play really taps into our primal neural wiring.  If we think back to the basic conditions for optimal neural function, we have:

  1. Safety
  2. Function
  3. Variety

Again, these factors are the fundamental architecture of our neural performance.  If we have an immediate threat or stressor nearby, we revert to fight or flight mode.  Once we're safe, we can work on functional tasks: moving from Point A to Point B, picking things up, and so on.  And variety is simply brain candy.  We aren't robots, and we don't work like them.  In fact, we have more & more evidence that variation enhances the rate at which we learn new skills.

Now we start to get a clue as to why play is so effective for skill acquisition & better movement.  It's inherently stress-free, it brings about variation in habitual patterns, and it's plain fun.  Really the only goal of play is to continue playing; if we happen to accomplish some extraneous task (like a handstand) along the way, so much the better.  

And if you think about it, it makes logical sense.  Play is one of our earliest forms of learning.  It's how we socialize  and learn the ropes as kids.  Whether it's a game of tag or hide & seek (prepping for the hunt?), cops & robbers (tribe warfare?), or house (interpersonal relationships?), play preps us for many challenges that formal education doesn't (2).

So how do we make the most of play time?

Bringing Play Into Practice

Here's where it gets tricky.  The second we attach a goal to play, it kind of stops being play.  But we can incorporate a more playful, exploratory mindset into our regular training to see huge benefits.  The best way I know of to "structure" play is this: come up with a "question" to explore:

  • How do I get from Point A to Point B?
  • How can I improve my upper body strength for a handstand?
  • How do I interact with another body?

Then establish a rule, or a set of rules.  For example:

  • You can't touch the floor
  • You must move on all four limbs
  • You have to remain in contact with your partner

Essentially you've established a constraint, and given yourself room to improvise within it.  That's how we get games like:

  • The floor is ava
  • Wolf tag
  • Contact improv, grappling, etc

You establish WHAT you're doing, but leave the HOW open to interpretation.  And that's how we find new options for movement.  Too often we get stuck in a rut of formal training, and we lose sight of just what our bodies are capable of.  Eventually dysfunctions & overuse injuries crop up, but it's entirely preventable.  With just a bit of playfulness, you can regain lost mobility & master new skills in a fraction of the time.  And you'll have a blast doing it.  

Do you have favorite training games or explorations?  Share them in the comments below!


1. Lewis, KP. "From Landscapes To Playscapes: The Evolution of Play in Humans and Other Animals." The Anthropology of Human Movement. Robert R. Sands. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010. Chapter 3.

2. Singer DG, et al. Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006