Diversifying Developmental Sporting Experiences

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Parents and coaches seek a formula or recipe for developing athletic (or educational) excellence, but no formula exists. Every child is different. We read the stories of those who have accomplished great victories and attempt to replicate their paths, but these stories often simplify a complex topic to a single attribution. 

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, K. Anders Ericsson argued that deliberate practice differentiates the elite and the non-elite. Parents and coaches have cited Ericsson’s research to justify early specialization and early professional training (i.e. deliberate practice) to jump start the road to excellence, but Peak simplified a complex topic and ignored evidence or research that conflicted with its message. 

Peak cited the early play experiences of hockey great Mario Lemieux to support its argument against natural or innate talent. “Although I don’t know of any studies that look at the value of this sort of play practice, it seems likely that these children were taking their first steps down the path of expertise.” Jean Cote and colleagues have published numerous studies about this exact type of “play practice”, which they named “deliberate play”. Cote and colleagues have suggested that development is more complex than deliberate practice, and argued against early specialization and early professional training in favor of diverse sporting experiences in early childhood.

Conditions of Children’s Talent Development in Sport introduced a spectrum of early childhood activities, each of which has value and importance in the development of motor and sports skills. Cote’s deliberate play lies on one end of the spectrum. “Deliberate play involves early developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.” Ericsson’s deliberate practice, defined as practice requiring great effort, generating no immediate rewards, and motivated by the goal of improving a specific aspect of performance, is at the other end. Deliberate play is child-initiated and participant-regulated, whereas deliberate practice occurs with a coach or teacher who designs the drills and provides the feedback. 

Between deliberate play and deliberate practice are adult-initiated play practice and organized competition, and child-initiated spontaneous practice. Play practice maintains the fun and game play of deliberate play, but adults organize the activity with the intention to improve performance. Organized competition provides the high concentration and effort of deliberate practice, but the games are not structured to improve specific aspects of performance, and the effort is generally enjoyable. Spontaneous practice occurs informally and is child-initiated as with deliberate play, but has the specific goal of improving performance, as with deliberate practice. Cote and colleagues5 suggested that “the different social contexts of the various play and practice activities fulfill different needs in children’s current and future involvement in sport.”

In today’s youth sports environment, play practice, organized competitions, and deliberate practice dominate, and deliberate play and spontaneous practice have all but disappeared. When adults organize the sporting activities, the range of activities narrows. Coaches or parents guide children toward the “right way”, which is based on adult perspectives. Adults discourage exploration and imagination, and direct and instruct children toward the desired technique or tactic. Adult-initiated activities emphasize competition and results, whereas child-initiated activities emphasize inclusion, development, and fun. 

As an example, in organized sports leagues, birthdates separate divisions; a child born on December 31 is placed in a different division than one born on January 1 despite being born hours apart. I played in a different soccer division than the majority of my classmates because the cutoff date for schools (September 1) and sports leagues (January 1) differed. On the playground, in deliberate play activities at recess, I played with and against my classmates because we created the games; I did not play with children in a different grade because I had a different birth year. 

In child-led activities, children play with younger and older children. The rules often are adapted for each individual based on skill or size. When playing stickball in a dirt field, children may pitch faster to the older children, but slower and from a shorter distance against a younger or less-skilled child. These rules are not pre-determined for the sake of fairness or competitive equality by administrators in an office, as with adult-led activities, but are adapted in the moment by the children to make the game more competitive. The children’s rule adaptations not only maintain the competitiveness and enhance their skill development, but improve creativity, self-regulation, motivation, and more. 

Cote and colleagues categorize these activities in terms of the learning environments that they create. Deliberate practice is rational learning because of the logic and order in an adult-led practice. Play practice is emotional learning because it promotes fun and enjoyment. Spontaneous practice is informal learning because the child has the desire to improve through the self-initiated and self-regulated practice. Deliberate play is creative learning because the child designs the environment. Each learning environment plays a role in development, especially during early childhood, and ignoring any environment may be detrimental. 

When parents and coaches narrow the child’s focus to deliberate practice, the child may suffer from emotional burnout and quit, which is the extreme negative consequence. Beyond quitting, the rational learning may not improve the player’s creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, and the explicit learning environment may lead to skills that break down under pressure. 

On the other hand, a child who engages solely in deliberate play may develop poor technique due to the lack of instruction and/or insufficient repetitions. A child who engages only in spontaneous practice may develop poor technique, and may not transfer the practice from the individual, isolated context to the more social, game context. Play practice may not lead to emotional burnout because the goal is to create fun and enjoyment, but the child may lack sufficient repetitions of important skills, and the activities may limit the child to certain solutions, thereby reducing creativity and problem-solving skills. 

The best developmental environment is one that affords children the time and opportunity to participate in each activity. In our current competition-focused, year-round sports environment, children often miss out on spontaneous practice and deliberate play. The blame falls on the children and technology, but in the average child’s over-scheduled life, when does he or she have time to practice spontaneously or to gather a group of children in the neighborhood for street hockey or stickball? By rushing into early specialization, adult-initiated activities and professionalized training, there is a time cost that limits or eliminates the opportunity to engage in other activities, and ultimately narrows the child’s development unnecessarily. One activity is not necessarily better than the others; learning to practice with concentration and effort, to win, to self-regulate, to include others, to explore, to try new things, to expand one’s skills, and more are valid and important reasons for sports participation. Developmentally, a balance of activities is best. 

Multi-Sport Participation in High School

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Ohio State University won the 2015 NCAA Football National Championship, and 42 of its 47 players recruited by Head Coach Urban Meyer played multiple sports in high school. The 2015 Super Bowl featured the Seattle Seahawks with 49 players who played multiple sports in high school on its 53-man roster playing the New England Patriots with 47 multi-sport athletes. Twenty-year-old Nick Krygios qualified for the 2015 Australian Open Quarterfinals several years after representing Australia in age-group basketball competitions.

Parents and youth coaches dismiss these anecdotes because these players could afford to play multiple sports because they were more athletic or more talented than their peers. The evidence suggests otherwise. Neither Super Bowl team featured a player who was considered a 5-star recruit in high school; the starting lineups combined for four 4-star recruits and 40 players who were considered 3-star recruits or lower. Seattle’s starting lineup averaged 2.4 stars, led by quarterback Russell Wilson who was considered a better baseball prospect, and New England’s starting lineup averaged 2.3 stars. Very few of the Super Bowl participants were considered elite talents in high school, and many elite 5-star prospects never made the NFL. The elites at 17 and 18 years old are not the elites at 21 years old and beyond. 

Rather than the more talented and more athletic being able to play multiple sports athletes, the research suggests that these players are more athletic and more talented as adults because they played multiple sports as adolescents. Athletes who participate in multiple sports and specialize later have more success as adults.

The rush to specialize fits the 10,000-hour narrative that was popularized in the last decade and used by coaches to convince parents of the necessity of single-sport participation. The local AAU basketball programs in southern California told parents of recreation players that their children had to play year-round at 8 years old or they would be left behind and never make a high-school team. 

The 10,000-hour rule is a myth: 28% of elite Australian athletes reached elite status within 4 years of taking up the sport for the first time, rather than the required 10 years. Soccer players spent between 2700 hours (Barcelona) and 4700 hours (AJ Auxerre, France) in practice from u8 through u19, less than half of the mythical 10,000 hours.

Rene Wormhoudt, currently the strength & conditioning coach for the Netherlands Football Federation, devised the Athletic Skills Model to create a sequence of development where the child becomes a good mover; the good mover becomes an athlete; and the athlete becomes a specialist. At the Ajax Academy, players compete in soccer and practice for 4400 hours up to u19s, but the academy introduces other sports, and the players engage in multilateral training. They participate in badminton, dodgeball, gymnastics, and judo. Badminton develops footwork and hand-eye coordination. Dodgeball incorporates split vision, hand-eye coordination, and collaboration. Judo develops strength, trust, control, and overcoming fear. These activities accompany the soccer training and add variation, which creates a better learning environment. 

Wormhoudt noted that the club had not lost any players to other sports, but suggested that good movers could excel at other sports such as tennis, basketball, and field hockey because they require athleticism and movement skills as precursors to specialized skill development. This talent transfer has been used to develop elite talents in other sports in many countries, notably Olympic sprinters turned bobsledders Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. Talent transfer based on innate abilities and ability developed through playing other sports can accelerate the acquisition of expert performance.13 The sports with the highest transfer to elite performance in another sport were sprinting, basketball, and soccer. 

In total, 48.4% of talent transfers occurred between the ages of 16 and 21, which could indicate an ideal time frame to change sports. When women’s rowing exploded as an NCAA scholarship sport, many new programs recruited basketball players and offered them the opportunity to transfer their athleticism and size. I coached an average high-school basketball player who became an elite college rower. This age window represents the time when many athletes quit sports, either because they are cut from a high-school varsity team or because they complete their high-school careers and are not recruited to play collegiately. Rather than end their competitive careers, these athletes could transition to other opportunities if they develop a solid base of movement skills and athleticism, not just specialized sport skills. When lacrosse was new to the west coast, an NCAA D1 university recruited a friend to be among their first players because he was a very good high-school soccer and baseball player, and the lacrosse coach felt this combination would enable him to transition to lacrosse, extending his competitive career for an additional 4 years. 

Children become good movers, then athletes, then specialists, as Wormhoudt suggested. Multi-sport participation enhances this progression because of the variation in movements and movement skills, as well as various psychosocial benefits, such as soccer players facing their fears in judo. The NCAA National Champions and Super Bowl participants were not able to play multiple sports because they were more talented and more athletic; they became more athletic and more talented when they reached adulthood because they played multiple sports. Nobody remembers the 5-star quarterbacks ranked ahead of Wilson when he graduated from high school, but everyone knows the Super-Bowl winning quarterback. As many have said: You can be elite early, or you can be elite late, but not both. Specializing prior to adolescence to be elite in a sport in adulthood has the opposite effect; the best players are the best athletes who are the best movers, and they develop these skills through multilateral sports participation. 

Deliberate Play and Old-School Development

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.26. Now available in Kindle and paperback. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Basketball has split down the middle. Trainers and those who believe there are too many “meaningless” games, and players should spend their entire offseason doing drills represent one side. On the other side stands the status quo, an environment of weekend tournaments for 52 weeks a year, often with one practice for every three to five games. The old-school approach is forgotten: nobody combines workouts with open gym runs or pick-up games at the park. Regardless of whether a coach or trainer is pro-training or pro-games, he or she favors a coach-centered, structured environment. Read more

3v3 Basketball and Youth Skill Development

The United States and the Olympics

I am pretty sure that I have written this article somewhere roughly 3 years ago after attending a USOC-sponsored coaching conference and realizing that most of the people were sycophants and basically nuts. However, the issue continues to gain momentum, and because nobody wants to argue a realistic position, here we go: Read more

Illustrating the difference between Peak by Friday and player development philosophies

Last weekend, I was the assistant referee for an u16 state cup semifinal game in which the #1 seed lost. This was the third time that I had refereed the losing team, and they had won 9-1 and 18-0 in the previous games. In the 18-0 game in February, their striker played all but the last five minutes as a striker and scored 11 goals. Their goalie never left the penalty box and touched the ball twice in the entire game. Players never switched positions or tried something new. They scored and scored and scored again.  Read more

Where is the development in youth basketball?

In the last two weeks, I have officiated 10 middle-school and freshmen basketball games, boys and girls. The complete lack of everything is astonishing. Many of the players are not fit (asking to come out after two minutes because they are tired). Basic coordination is lacking. Because the players are fatigued easily and uncoordinated, basic skills like dribbling and shooting layups become far more challenging than they should be for 13 and 14 year-olds, many of whom started to play on teams when they were six or seven years old.  Read more

The 24-Hour Athlete

I put this packet together for my team last year after I witnessed some of their lifestyle habits.

24-Hour Athlete – Lemvig

The Importance of a Long Term Athlete Development Approach

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2012.

When I coached a professional women’s basketball team in Sweden, I assisted my best player with her u15 girls’ team. When I returned to the States after the season, I assisted an u14 girls’ AAU team. The teams were vastly different. The U.S. team was bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled. The team went to AAU Nationals and finished pretty well, top 12 if I remember. They were a good team, and the team’s core had been together for several years and attended the same school. Read more

Traditions Die Hard: Where is science-based or research-directed coaching?

The Internet makes information available like never before, yet there appears to be no changes in the way that the majority of coaches teach children. Last week, I worked out a college player during the lunch break of the college’s youth camp. I stayed and watched some of the camp. Despite having a limited number of players and enough balls for each player plus six baskets to use, I saw lines of players standing around and very little action. Today, I attended a practice in India and saw children dribble through cones for 40 minutes doing a drill that was taught at an NBA-sponsored coach’s clinic. Finally, I graded papers for my Introduction to Coaching practice plan assignment, and nearly every student started his or her practice with jogging around the field or court followed by stretching. Every student used a very linear model: stretching, block practice/technique drill, block practice/technique drill, scrimmage. Every sport was the same. Read more

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