If you don’t know Tilted Towers or Loot Lake, you know nothing... Fortnite, one of the latest video game craze to sweep the world, pits 100 players dropped into a postapocalyptic island against each other. Last-man standing wins. Lord of the Flies version 3.0.
My two kids (and all the children I coach!) are consumed by it (I know, PEGI 16. Bad dad...). My kids love sport. They like being outside playing. Yet, this is the first time we have had to physically switch off the console and surgically remove the controller from their hands. Who can blame them though...? I have tried it. Yes I have played. And for someone who never got into video games as a kid (it kind of passed me by), I have to give it to them: this game is addictive, very!
Now, this blog is not about criticising video games or vilifying game designers. Quite the contrary actually. This blog is about sharing with you what I have learnt about coaching being ‘coached’ to play the game by my boys, and by deciphering the ‘tricks’ used by game designers to keep players engaged.
Let’s start with the ‘being coached’.
In fact, let’s be more precise: Being coached at something you are awful at and have no prior knowledge of... Do you know how many buttons a blooming PlayStation controller has???
Here is what I learned:
When you don’t know what you are doing, everything happens so fast, it is scary. My pulse raised massively and my ability to process information was greatly reduced. It was ‘deer in the headlights’
Add someone like my 12 year-old son, shouting in your ear "do this or do that", and your reaction time increases 10 fold. The chances of you freezing go up massively. ‘Deer in the highlights’ x10. The best way to learn is to play, die a few times, think about why you died, get some advice and play again. Play, die, think, listen, repeat.
What does it mean for us coaches:
Be understanding and patient. What to you looks slow, easy and obvious, to children looks fast, hard and complex.
Shut Off the GPS Navigator Voice. In other words, shut up and let them play. Find the right moments to talk to them. Wait until they are actually ready to listen and make sure you will not have a negative impact by distracting them. A running commentary of the game or drill is a bad idea.
Shut Off the GPS Navigator Voice.
In other words, shut up and let them play.
What about what I learned from the game designers?
I hear coaches all the time complaining about kids’ lack of concentration and motivation. With the obvious differences between sports and video games in mind, this is what I've learned:
When the activity is fun and engaging, children can stay tuned in and positively focused for a hell of a long time. I had my first taste of this when we took our eldest, then 3, to watch Kung-Fu Panda. We had to check his pulse every now and again to make sure he was still alive because he didn’t move for the 2 hours Po was on screen.
When the activity is fun and engaging, children can
stay tuned in and positively focused
for a hell of a long time.
When the activity is fun and engaging, children are capable of incredible feats of learning at incredible speeds. Children on Fortnite or Minecraft know every kind of weapon, their range, damage capacity, reloading time, every building material, and they know the map and topography like the back of their hand. It’s mind-boggling.
When the activity is fun and engaging, and the reward worth it, children are capable of cooperating better than I have seen most adults do. Recently, while playing ‘squads’ (that’s the team version of Fortnite), my son was knocked down by ‘enemy fire’,. Immediately, his two teammates, without having to say a word, came to the rescue. One built a wall around him, while the other gave him a ‘health potion’ to revive him. They then proceeded to drop other items from their own ‘inventories’, so my son could carry on playing. It was like watching the Ballet... Flawless.
When its fun and engaging, children relish success and bounce back from defeat very quickly. They can’t wait to have another go!! Video game designers are incredible at creating ‘dopamine-loaded experiences’ that make children come back time and again. Fortnite designers for example, are constantly adding new things, like fancy or funny ‘player skins’ and ‘gliders’. It baffles me how excited my kids get when they get enough points to buy a new skin... But the designers also refresh the game all the time. I love the idea of opening a new season every 3 or 4 months. Everyone starts from scratch every season and has to build their profile and ‘win’ tiers all over again. They are also amazing a creating a buzz and a sense of anticipation by drop feeding kids information about the changes and updates for the upcoming season. My boys count the days left for the next update with more anticipation than they do for Christmas!
Finally, video games allow children to fail multiple times with zero risk. The amount of practice time they can rack up is unreal... Sport may not be able to ever achieve the same thing, but if we can create an environment where there is ‘near-zero’ risk, I think learning could go through the roof!
What does this mean for us coaches?
We have to go out of our way to make sessions fun and engaging. This is a precondition for learning, cooperation, resilience and for sustained engagement. I say this in every coaching course or lecture: “Don’t let learning get in the way of fun; use fun to pave the way for learning”.
“Don’t let learning get in the way of fun;
use fun to pave the way for learning”
We must spend time thinking how we are going to create that sense of novelty and anticipation in our sessions. Do we really need 9-month long seasons? Could we operate more on shorter, multiple mini-seasons or even festivals and tournaments to continuously refresh children and build anticipation and novelty? Can we ‘change it up’ frequently enough: new drills and games, new experiences, new sports?
We ought to get as close as possible to that ‘zero-risk’ zone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a molly-coddle approach to coaching. It’s not about sheltering them from failure or setbacks, but about helping them understand these as central to learning and facilitate them ‘bouncing back’ quickly and willingly.
Do we really need 9-month long seasons?
Could we operate more on shorter, multiple
mini-seasons or even festivals and
tournaments to continuously refresh children
and build anticipation and novelty?
Now, I knew most of these things before my ‘near death experience’ playing Fortnite. I teach them every year to my undergrad students, and to the hundreds of coaches I work with around the world! But going through it personally, “suffering it” in my own flesh, was a rude awakening. It made me realise how much I had been taking for granted the players’ capacity to learn and do stuff at the pace I wanted them to, or under the conditions I was setting. It also made me appreciate how much we sometimes underestimate children’s capacities and abilities or think they “can’t do certain things”, when in reality, it is us who have not created the right environment for them to do it. And finally, it made me question how much more time I should be spending thinking about how to create novelty and anticipation as a pre-condition for engagement and learning. Food for thought for all, I hope!
Enough writing. I got to get back on the Battle Bus for another game! Currently, I look like Harley Quinn, but I really want to get the John Wick skin. See you on the other side!!!
Professor Sergio Lara-Bercial
Sergio is a Professor of Sport Coaching at Leeds Beckett University in the UK and the Vice-President for Strategy and Development for the International Council for Coaching Excellence. He has published widely on a variety of sport-related topics including youth sport and coach development. Sergio is also the co-founder of ICOACHKIDS. Sergio is recognised globally and consults for multiple high-level organisations such as Nike, UEFA and FIBA. He is also a former international basketball coach for Great Britain and has coached national league for over 25 years winning 18 National Titles with both male and female teams.