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The Essential Nature of Free Play + Bikes

Incorporating free play in your practices & activities reinforces NICA’s core values of fun & inclusivity. Plus…who doesn’t love a little laughter and joy while riding bikes?!

Photo by Aaron Puttcamp, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling Association.

Many of us grew up riding bikes in our neighborhoods. We made up games and knew all the best routes to our friends’ houses. We may even consider these unstructured moments on bikes as the very start of our own our love of riding.

Research has found that these types of free play experiences foster social skills, and inherently demand some form of inclusion. They promote lifelong, intrinsic motivation for sport participation.

“In 2006, the U.S. Soccer Federation released a paradigm shifting document, Best Practices for Coaching in the United States, urging coaches to find a place for loosely structured play within society’s need for adult oversight. Coaches can often be more helpful to a student-athlete’s development by organizing less, saying less, and allowing the kids to do more.”

As NICA coaches it’s incredibly important for us to integrate moments of free play into our practices. Free play reinforces our core values of fun and inclusivity. 

Here are some key tips for cultivating free play at practice:
  • Allow student-athletes to create
  • Provide simple perimeters like boundaries and time limits
  • Say very little, try not to interject

Free play can seem like an intimidating concept – or like you’re giving up “control” over practice. Here’s an easy game to play that encourages all of the elements of free play, and puts student-athletes in charge of their environment, challenges, and activity.

The Impossible Climb

Play this at the practice after you have taught all of the climbing skills and have given your student-athletes an opportunity to attempt a challenging climb that you designed. You will want to be intentional about using the name “impossible climb.” This name gives your riders permission to make mistakes and acknowledges that failure is part of the fun.  

Where: Hill or sloping climb in an open area 

Objective: I can build a positive team culture. I can build timing, coordination, pressure control, steering, and climbing skills. I can have fun. 

Setup: Provide student-athletes with materials to create the “impossible climb” – you can be creative with materials (use what you have on hand, or build up your coach toolkit with some of our examples below!)

Possible materials:

  • Section of PVC pipe, cut in half length-wise
  • Section of PVC pipe, cut in half length-wise, with added grip tape
  • Section of 2×4 wood on the ground
  • Tennis balls
  • Tall traffic cones
  • Buckets
  • Rubber chickens
  • Hula hoops
  • Bike tubes
  • Survey tape or course tape
  • Landscaping staples 
  • Fake rocks

Rules: Student-athletes work together to place the materials on the hill to build something that no one is able to ride. All features have to be less than 18 inches high. 

101 Skills: Bike body separation, shifting, standing climb, crouched climb, seated climb 

201 Skills: Ratcheting, track stands 

Progression: Add a switchback or other material to make it even more impossible!

Reflection Question: How did you work with your team to build the impossible climb? 

View “The Impossible Climb” in NICA’s On-the-Bike games section on The Trailhead