Does More Skill Equal Less Fun?

I teach at a Montessori school with a thriving basketball program. Flashback to ten years ago, and we only had one team. The parents were wary that organized sports and competition would ruin the Montessori spirit of the school. Today, we have ten teams (boys and girls from 4th to 8th grade) and it is a highlight of the school community during our winter season. Most of our upper elementary and middle school students are on one of the teams, and our lower elementary students can’t wait to join. One team a few years ago won the championship in our league, and we have another team that will contend for the championship this year. Our basketball program has become a big success because of student involvement, excellent coaching, and parent support. It does not hurt that each team has a couple very highly skilled athletes who are not only excellent at basketball, but are good teammates s well.

Recently, our students have been studying African-American history for Black History Month here is the United States. In PE, we looked at a very famous American team called the Harlem Globetrotters. Originally from southern Illinois, they took on the moniker “Harlem” so they could be associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” that was happening in New York in the 1920’s. The team was created so black players had a league to play in since segregation did not allow black players in the NBA. The Harlem Globetrotters would be so good that they defeated the Minnesota Lakers (now the LA Lakers) in a competitive exhibition game.

With the Civil Rights Movement, the end of segregation, and heroes like Jackie Robinson, eventually black players were allowed in the NBA in the 1950’s. However, this was not good for the Globetrotters in the short term because some of their best players, like Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlin, would move to the NBA. The Globetrotters had to evolve their business model if they were to survive. So, the Globetrotters became more about entertainment than just basketball. Highflying dunks, fancy passes, and comedy shtick became the feature act of the Globetrotters instead of competitive games. The similarity between the Globetrotters and basketball could be compared to professional wrestling and Olympic wrestling. Wildly successful, the Globetrotters would eventually add women, white, and Latino players to the roster as well.

For this gym class, the students were going to play basketball, but not ordinary basketball, but “Globetrotter basketball.” The objective of the game was “make the game look cool,” and wow people with spectacular feats. Players were encouraged to do no-look passes, crazy 360-degree layups, and other trick shots. For this to work, the defense needed to be “lazy;” they were not allowed to steal the ball, only get in the way and grab rebounds from missed shots. This made the game fun for less skilled players because they were able to play basketball without the fear of losing the ball too quickly (because it couldn’t be stolen from them the way it would during traditional games). For 95% of the students, they had a lot of fun and worked very hard (especially students who typically were not as active in PE during traditional sports). However, there was 5% that not only didn’t really want to participate, but also were actively annoyed with the game and basically refused to play. What was interesting was that the 5% of disgruntled students were comprised of “good” basketball players from the school team!

I was very surprised; I thought they would love the game because their high skill level would allow them to attempt ridiculous shots or intricate passes. Because there was less pressure on defense, they had free reign to attempt shots only professionals would dream of taking or try moves unheard of in a competitive game. I assumed that due to it’s less competitive nature, this game would allow them to play loose and have fun, and not take the game seriously.

I was mistaken.

These players had a very tough time “playing for fun.” They were universally frustrated that they were not allowed to play aggressive defense, and because the score was not being kept, making fancy shots “didn’t mean anything.” Some of the upper elementary students were frustrated almost to the point of tears. This was the first time observing this type of behavior in these students. In the classroom and on the basketball court, these are model Montessori students. So what was going on? I have several theories, but none of these are confirmed (yet).

“You have to play the right way.”

Because these student athletes work so hard to perfect their craft, they don’t want to jeopardize that by playing in a way that might undermine the fundamentals that they are working on. Coaches often preach to the athletes not to practice bad habits, and the skilled athlete may see a game that encourages “looser play” not to be worth playing because it will hamper their ability to play correctly during an official game.

Highly skilled ATHLETES seem to feel “relief” instead of fun

I’ll never forget one of my best basketball players telling me that he felt relieved after they had won their championship. I expected him to say excited, overjoyed, or any other positive attribute you could think of, but he said relief. This player must have put himself under tremendous internal pressure. He knew he was one of the better players, so his contributions to the team were very important. He knew that the championship was a big deal, and obviously he wanted to win. He didn’t want to let down his friends, coaches, and parents. But it was interesting, and possibly sad, that instead of feeling the joy of victory with his teammates, it was relief from not disappointing himself and others that was his first feeling. So, if the student is not really having fun, when they are asked to play the game for fun, that might be an alien concept to them.

Not being the “star” anymore ( jealousy associated with others doing well)

Because the students were not allowed to play aggressive defense, more players were able to participate and have an impact on the game. When someone is accustomed to being in the spotlight for something that they do well, and the spotlight is taken away from them, they usually don’t like that. It is common to see this among siblings; the older sibling is jealous of the younger one when attention is diverted to the new child. The attention and accolades that the star player usually receives was given to other players because they were able to be successful (for the first time), and that was exciting to see. It is easy to see how someone can feel jealous when others are getting attention.

Players crave rules and order, and its removal was overwhelming

Some Montessori students love structure and order, and that can be appealing in sports. There are set rules that have consequences when they are broken. The rigid framework allows certain choices to be made in a certain context, which can free someone from paralysis through analysis. When structure is purposefully taken away and more choices are available, this can be daunting to a student who likes clear choices and linear objectives. If the goal is not to just score, but to score “with flair,” what does that mean? How do I impress others enough to meet these criteria? Those questions were purposely not answered to allow students to be as creative as possible, and for some students, that freedom was too much to handle successfully.

If you have any other theories, I would love to hear about them in the comments section below. I would also love to hear if you have had similar experiences with your students, children, or even yourself. This was an interesting behavior that I observed specifically in my upper elementary classes. Surprisingly, the middle school students did not follow this trend, so I wonder if this observed behavior is age dependent. I will continue to observe my classes to see if this happens again, and will continue developing lessons that integrate with the Montessori classroom, as well as challenge students, physically, mentally, and emotionally.