Scarcely a child grew up in Ireland without hearing this classic phrase to deter us from going too far with our antics.
There is something wholly infectious about doing something that is fun. Fun has the capacity to elevate something banal into something engaging. The psychologists tell us about the hormones that get released when we laugh and giggle and how our attention can be enhanced to the point of ignoring all else around us.
Now, rarely does someone lose an eye at this point, but the adults have a sixth sense for danger, not because anyone lost an eye from their time either, but no one wants to spend half a day in A&E all the same, especially nowadays.
In recent years, fun has become a product for sale to the masses. For the smallies there are play zones where they’re loaded into a confined, colourful, but well-padded space to run wild for a specific period of time. For the adolescents, there are more adrenaline-oriented offerings that mimic something out of a Navy Seals boot camp. And for the adults, fun comes in the form of corporate team-building days, where the quiet ones find their voice and seize the day to let fly on some colleagues, as a raft is built to represent their unity and shared vision.
The astronomical fees for these outlets are directly linked to the insurance premiums that go hand-in-hand with quasi-organised chaos and the unlikely, but possible event of someone damaging a body part, all in the name of fun.
Fun has also become a commodity for high-performance sport. We are well versed in the rhetoric from head coaches who speak about keeping the environment light and being able to accurately temperature check when to introduce something fun for the athletes to switch out of the mindset of constant improvement and marginal gains.
Munster Rugby stands out for being strong on getting this balance right over the years. From the work of the highly regarded Paul Darbyshire to Bryce Cavanagh to Aled Walters, it always appeared to be a ruthless yet enjoyable environment to be in.
Darbyshire was known for getting the balance right between keeping it light and lighting a fire underneath the players to get them right. Bryce Cavanagh was known for innovation and creativity and has since gone on to lead England football’s physical preparation under Gareth Southgate. It is no surprise that fun is a common term used in the player interviews before and during the ongoing EURO2020 championships. Finally, Aled Walters was highly praised for his connection with the Munster players, so much so that Rassie Erasmus poached him for his own pet project in South Africa, with astonishing impact in such a short space of time leading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and concluding with the Webb Ellis trophy being raised aloft.
There is no indication here that these coaches are playing the clown with their charges, far from it, as they take their jobs and the responsibilities that come with them very seriously. It is this awareness that leads them to endless hours of reading, researching, and networking to stay up-to-date and on top of the evidence that will inform their sessions. But as important as the science is, the fact of the matter remains that they have a deep appreciation that the players are humans first, and athletes second.
A set-up that does not have a capacity to let off some steam runs the risk of becoming too highly strung. This is less of an issue for the industrious players that just get on with their job and do not look for the edges of what is allowed or not.
However, for the mavericks in the group, that player with precocious talent and a short fuse, the inherent itch needs to be scratched somewhere somehow, which if not satisfied will result in some petulant behaviour mid-match. There is always a reason someone lashes out and a lack of fun is just as likely a factor as any.
When coaches and players get into the headspace of pushing for better in every session and every moment of every session, it is likely they are driven by the stories of others who speak of the hard yards covered and sacrifices made en route to their success.
One such form of practice that speaks directly to this approach is deliberate practice, the most effective form of practice for the development of expertise in any domain, and sport is no different. Part of what defines deliberate practice from other forms of practice is that it is not inherently enjoyable. This single tenet has been misinterpreted to mean that to get better, practice cannot be enjoyable, ever, which of course is not the case. To be clear, if it is deliberate practice, then yes, it is likely that the activity is not something someone would do for enjoyment.
But there are many other forms of practice that can make up a training session and we can visualise their intensity if we think of them along a continuum with fun on the left-hand side and serious on the right, where deliberate practice sits. Purposeful practice sits halfway between deliberate practice and the centre of the continuum. It is focused in its preparation and as the name suggests has a specific purpose attached to it and is often best used where multiple athletes are engaged at the same time.
Competition practice is a dress rehearsal of match time and requires focus on the whole of the sport as opposed to something specific, and it sits close to purposeful practice on the serious side of the continuum. Maintenance practice is found in the middle and is used to top up some already refined skills and tactical plays, though improvement is not the focus here.
Play practice is where the fun stuff lives and you’ll find it on the far left of the scale. Here players are asked to engage in activities that are not designed to improve performance but are more directed to raising the spirits of the camp. Finally, naïve practice is the time thief of any session. It is where players engage in repetitive actions or plays with the false hope that repetition alone will improve their performance when the pressure comes. Unfortunately for many, naïve practice shows up all along the continuum as it is used as a default activity to fill time and avoid interaction.
As the summer begins to heat up and the sessions increase in intensity, it is important that someone somewhere in the set up remembers that to reach a peak, it can be best achieved by coming from below to get to it. Sustaining intensity of effort and focus on the prize 24/7 is about as draining an exercise to engage in as you can think of.
This is not an excuse to ditch the core principles of the team and let loose in a manner that can damage the vision being achieved, but to remember that good things happen when people are relaxed.