Burnout and Long-Term Player Development

Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development presents a gradual four-stage progression for player development over a period of years. The book outlines an alternative to the early specialization, game-heavy model used by most youth leagues and programs.

In Massachusetts, youth hockey organizations are making changes similar to those outlined in Cross Over. The typical approach to youth hockey is similar to the common approach to youth basketball:

In some hockey programs, these young skaters would already be playing on the full length of ice, 200 feet long, the same as TD Garden, home to the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The littlest players might have dozens of games each season – stretching through much of the year – and spend hours traveling to their opponents’ rinks. In warmer months, their parents might spend hundreds of dollars for hockey camps.

The youngest basketball players play full-court 5v5 games, just like professional players, and many play on 10′ rims, just like the NBA. Players play in tournaments throughout the year.

The change in Massachusetts has come, in part, because all the games and early specialization are leading to less competitive success when the players reach their teens and beyond.

At Boston University this winter, only three players come from Massachusetts; a decade ago, the number would have been about 15, said coach Jack Parker.

“There are more recruitable players from the state of Texas and the state of California than from the state of Massachusetts,’’ Parker said. “That is unbelievable.’’

He is among the coaches and enthusiasts who say the dwindling numbers of homegrown hockey stars can be blamed in part on rigorous team schedules, with too many games and too little practice.

“I know kids who are 12 years old and are playing 100 games a year,’’ Parker said. “It’s absolutely insane.’’

Additionally, the over-competition at young ages is leading to reduced participation.

Many players, especially the youngest, are dropping out of hockey programs. Over the last five years in Massachusetts, about 16,000 youngsters quit before they turned 8, according to Roger Grillo, regional manager for USA Hockey’s developmental program.

“The research shows that it’s burnout,’’ Grillo, a former hockey coach at Brown University, said of the declining participation. “It’s too serious too soon.’’

Personally, I think eight-years-old is too young to play on a youth basketball team. I advise parents to start their child in martial arts, swim lessons, gymnastics and soccer at early ages and allow them to explore other activities as they get older. Players should play a sport recreationally before committing to a competitive team environment.

I know basketball skill trainers who work with four and five-year-olds because there is money to be made. Parents believe these children will have a head start by starting early. Instead, like the hockey players, this early start is more likely to lead to an early drop-out.

I have not seen many studies of basketball programs and participation rates, as USA Basketball does not focus on developmental programs to the extent that USA Hockey is involved. However, I know many youth coaches who believe that girls, especially, are leaving basketball to play softball, soccer or volleyball. While the migration may be due to many things, the impact of the over-competition and the emotional and physical burnout from the constant year-round play is certainly one reason.

USA Hockey distributed age-appropriate guidelines (much like Cross Over) to coaches and organizations (the impetus behind this site). The emphasis is on more training and learning and less competition.

During a hockey game, Grillo said, even the best player might only touch the puck for a total of about 90 seconds. During practice, however, players spend much more time handling the puck and, therefore, learning to play, he said.

Basketball is the same. Several years ago, I tried to convince a player to spend the off-season training, rather than playing on multiple teams. After one weekend where the player injured her hamstring during her seventh game of the weekend, I questioned her.

She said that she had to play on the teams to improve. She said that she needed to improve her ball handling and her shooting. I probed further. She never once played as the primary ball handler in the seven games and she took about 10 shots per game. In a weekend spent entirely in the gym, she took 70 shots (+ warm-ups) and never practiced her ball handling. How is that going to help her improve?

To improve youth sports, we need to remember the reasons that children play the sport and acknowledge the differences between athletes at different ages. With a more age-appropriate progression of skills and development, players gradually improve and grow more competitive.

The organizations in Massachusetts diagnosed a problem and developed guidelines to improve its product and better meet the needs of the young athletes. Hopefully youth basketball organizations transition to more age-appropriate guidelines before a big problem (reduced participation) develops. Basketball programs needs to learn from programs in other sports and be proactive rather than relying on the game’s popularity to provide new participants from year to year. The goal should be to provide the best possible programs and not rely on the NBA’s heavy marketing or the ubiquitousness of basketball on television to maintain participation numbers.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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