What wrestling cats can teach us about work

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

It’s 6pm and, like clockwork, my two cats come bounding into the room.

Theo lies limp on his back while Loki circles his target until… WHAM!, he attacks. There’s a brief tussle, a chase, and then the game begins again. This event is followed by solo-play involving lots of explosive back arching, skipping through the room, and ambitious leaps from one ledge to the next.

Although my cats will never have to hunt their dinner or fight a foe - they are getting better and better at… well, being cats.

Their attack maneuvers have grown in craftiness and complexity. They have grown from clumsy kittens into graceful cats; effortlessly sailing from ledge to ledge, and sticking every landing with the smooth confidence of Simone Biles.

The science of play

According to Spinka et al. (2011) play is “training for the unexpected”. When playing, animals seek out and create situations that stretch their skill-set. They do this by putting themselves in disadvantageous positions and situations - just like when Theo exposes his belly to Loki during their wrestling matches. The result is that they learn to cope behaviorally, emotionally, and physiologically with unexpected stressful situations (Burghardt, 2015).

Simply put, play is an opportunity to learn in an (almost) danger-free simulation.

It is almost danger-free because at its core, play is risky. Even with a well-meaning playmate, there’s risk of injury. Theo and Loki’s perfectly calibrated landings were preceded by plenty of falling in, on and over things. And yet, despite the risks, exercises in play remain core to development in most mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs. That’s because it’s a really effective way to learn.

To play or not to play

(as a human adult)

So what about one particular animal: the human. Is it the same for us?

Well, yes and no. While animals “play” well into adulthood, humans dial down this habit well before puberty. When we think of play as adults we think of games and sports - which unlike true play are confined by rules and follow a clear objective (i.e. winning). And even this more organized form of play is seen as something we do outside of our productive time.

Unlike games, true play is spontaneous, self-motivated and mostly free of rules. What makes true play so interesting is that it is intrinsically motivated. That means it is done for the sake of enjoyment, no matter the outcome. Yes, even in animals (see Baldassarre et al. 2014).

Play is the highest form of research.
Albert Einstein

Play is intrinsically motivated learning.

Just like in animals, play means simulating stressful situations in an almost danger-free environment. Learning in this way develops the physical, mental and behavioral “skills” you need to do well in life. Improv, role-playing, debate club, spontaneous games of tag, are all forms of play. We’re essentially practicing situations that may or may not happen in order to learn from the simulated experience (just like Theo and Loki play wrestle to prepare for combat with a less friendly rival). And we do it because it’s fun. In fact, you could say we’ve evolved to enjoy it because, just like food and sex, learning is crucial to our survival as a species.

In humans, learning for the sake of joy dies down very rapidly as children grow up. This type of learning is replaced by one that is extrinsically motivated. This means behavior is steered by external drivers; These can be rewards such as extra screen time or pocket money; they can take the form of social pressure (keeping up with peers, gaining approval from adults)... and at worst learning happens from fear of punishment or humiliation. This is not to say we never enjoy learning as adults, but for most joy is not the main driver.

Empowering others means encouraging play

So why this transition from joy- to incentive-steered learning? One issue with intrinsically motivated learning is that it is solely controlled by the person playing. Inciting intrinsic motivation in others isn’t easy [though according to Li et al. (2015) it’s possible through empowerment].

On the other hand, driving behavior using extrinsic forces is easy. Don’t want your overworked engineer to quit? Give them a raise. Want your kid to practice the piano? Remind them how much you spend on lessons. Obligation, guilt, fear and any kind of reward shifts the source of motivation from learning for the sake of enjoyment to hope for a good outcome or fear of a bad one after the learning activity is done.

Learn to play and play to learn

Re-learning to learn for the sake of joy - to “play” with skills you haven’t mastered yet is no cakewalk. Play means stepping outside of your comfort zone without letting the fear of failing or looking silly hold you back. It means embracing all the stumbles on your personal path of continuous improvement. It means accepting that perfectionism is a myth because nothing you will ever do is perfect, and that’s okay. It means putting your weaknesses on display and showing raw vulnerability.

When we were defining our core values at Marakana, we rallied around playfulness. For one, it aligns with the mission of our app Rival to bring intrinsic motivation back to skill development in sports. However, reinforcing playfulness at Marakana serves a bigger purpose: it allows us to collaborate in an environment that is optimized for growth. We empower each other to leap boldly forward, to imagine, reimagine and explore new ideas. To us, upholding playfulness means courageously pushing beyond the limits of comfort and certainty in a psychologically safe environment, scientifically proven to support intrinsically motivated skill development.

Is playfulness one of the values at your organization? We want to hear about the challenges and success stories of playfulness at work. We’ll be diving into this topic in more detail to share our experience cultivating the value of playfulness at Marakana. Stay tuned!


Spinka et al. (2011) Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected

Burghhardt (2015) Play in fishes, frogs and reptiles.

Li et al. (2015). Locus of control, psychological empowerment and intrinsic motivation relation to performance.

Baldassarre et al. (2014) Intrinsic motivations and open-ended development in animals, humans, and robots: an overview

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