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

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

Developing Young Athletes for the Long Term

Originally published in the Jan/Feb. 2010 Long Angeles Sports & Fitness.

A representative from a nation’s basketball federation inquired about my interest in the position of the federation’s Technical Director. During the conversation, he stressed the importance of understanding Canada’s development model. While unfathomable to people in the United States, sports federations around the world no longer envy the U.S. model. Instead, sports bodies interested in developing Olympic athletes and world champions copy the models of Canada, Australia and Great Britain, the early adopters of Istvan Balyi’s Long Term Athlete Development model.

Most people in the U.S. are unaware of the LTAD model or do not see a reason to change the way that athletes develop. The people who run youth sports strive to maintain the status quo, pointing to traditional success, rather than searching for more innovative ideas or the best possible development program.

In the October 2009 Fast Company, an article titled “Cassandra’s Revenge” profiled economist Noreena Hertz and her ideas on changing the world’s economic system.

“She offers the auto industry as an example: In the late 60’s, she says, when the Clean Air Act was being deliberated in the United States, American carmakers spent millions lobbying against it, while Honda decided to develop more energy-efficient cars. ‘Honda’s cost was on innovation and thinking about how the future might be, and making a product that might fit the future better,’ says Hertz. ‘The other companies were spending their money on stopping the future from happening. In that case, Honda won.’”

Other nations spend their financial resources on innovation, adopting overall systems to develop future athletes rather than waiting for precocious athletes to materialize. In the United States, we spend money on the same programs and competitions, maintaining the status quo. Our sports organizations believe in the traditional approach to athlete development which has worked for generations because we start with a great mass of participants and allow the strongest, biggest athletes to survive.

The NBA, for instance, does not invest in the youth programs developing the next generation of NBA players. Instead, due to the promises of riches and fame, the popularity of the game and the large and diverse population, the NBA knows that enough players will develop through the survival of the fittest development model and replenish NBA rosters. Major League Baseball teams run academies throughout Latin America, but rely on Little Leagues (parents) and high school programs (teachers) to develop the next generation of homegrown baseball players.

Before Dr. Istvan Balyi developed the LTAD, the former Soviet Union led the world in applying sports science to athlete development. Dr. Michael Yessis of California State University, Fullerton in Secrets of Soviet Sport Fitness & Training described the Russian versus American development systems:

“In the U.S., we treat our best athletes like Rolls-Royces, glorying in their quality, but we leave these Rolls-Royces parked in the driveway, to be spattered by rain and snow, and driven mile after mile without receiving even the most basic maintenance such as lubrication and oil changes. Yes, we fill them with gas, but when one breaks down we just discard it and get another.

By contrast, in the U.S.S.R., coaches have never felt that they have a base of outstanding athletes so large that they could care for them poorly. Thus, much as a prized Rolls-Royce should be treated, athletes there are nurtured with tender loving care. They receive the best coaching available in their area. These youngsters are encouraged in every way possible to reach their full potential.”

In the 21st Century, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and others have replaced the former U.S.S.R. as the new model, as their sports federations have adopted Balyi’s LTAD model in some form. The LTAD now guides sports development as sports scientists learn more every year about the process of developing an elite athlete. In Canada, for instance, the federation for each sport created its own LTAD plan to guide its administrators and coaches who in turn guide the athletes.

In 2008, the United States maintained its athletic dominance at the Beijing Games, but there were signs of change, if you looked closely. Great Britain demonstrated a world class cycling program despite almost no history of cycling success. A BBC article titled “How GB cycling went from tragic to magic” published shortly after the conclusion of the 2008 Games detailed the changes with British Cycling:

“In 1992, Chris Boardman won Britain’s first Olympic cycling gold since 1920. But British Cycling’s performance director Peter Keen knew nothing had really changed.

‘What Chris and I were doing in the early ’90s was classic British alpinism,’ remembers Keen. ‘He was just another one-off success. Leave no ropes, leave no trail. There was no system so there was no legacy. I saw then the challenge was to convert those highly motivated, highly talented individuals into a system.’”

Australia battled the U.S. head to head in swimming (among other sports like women’s basketball) with many of its top athletes progressing through the famed A.I.S. (Australian Institute of Sport).

While U.S. athletes develop through a hodge-podge of different programs, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and others guide the development of their athletes through the sports’ Federations. Successful U.S. athletes thrive through the British alpinism that Keen describes. We believe that athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Drew Brees and Derek Jeter are genetic freaks with innate talent who were destined for sporting greatness. The LTAD is a philosophy used by Federations to develop athletes consistently as opposed to waiting for fate to birth a new star.

The LTAD presents guidelines for coaches, parents and administrators.  For instance, the emphasis until 11-years-old for girls or 12-years-old for boys (onset of puberty) is physical literacy. In the FUNdamentals stage (boys 6-9 and girls 6-8), the LTAD emphasizes that “skill development should be well-structured and FUN and should concentrate on developing the ABCs – of Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed, plus rhythmic activities.”

How many u8 coaches are concerned with developing Agility? When I played u8 soccer, we ran laps; we did not focus on changing directions or moving laterally. I walked into a gym this weekend and saw the end of several youth basketball practices. Every one featured young children running through the team’s plays 5v0. Players ran in straight lines, passed to designated spots and shot once every couple minutes. Coaches constantly re-focused players on the task (running the offense), as the players were distracted easily. This practice is not particularly fun, nor does it develop agility, balance, coordination or speed.

I was there to run a clinic for young players. We played three different games of tag (two while dribbling basketballs). We warmed-up with a competitive acceleration drill and a competitive agility drill. We added another acceleration drill while dribbling. Every segment was active and involved competition, though there was no real winner or loser. The short clinic trained agility, speed, balance and coordination in multiple ways, and the players laughed and smiled for the entire time. Not once did I have to re-focus the players’ attention.

Furthermore, the LTAD suggests that “this is a great age for children to take part in a wide range of sports.” Even in the next stage – Learning to Train – with 9-12 year-old boys and 8-11-year-old girls, the LTAD suggests that “it is still too early for specialization in late specialization sports [gymnastics is an example of an early specialization sport; most team sports are late specialization sports, meaning athletes peak in their 20s, not their teens]. Although many children at this age will have developed a preference for one sport or another, for full athletic development they need to engage in a broad range of activities, playing at least 2-3 different sports.” These guidelines shape the way that Federations administer sports. New Zealand’s sports federation sponsored an LTAD program for athletes younger than 14. Each athlete, regardless of sport, participated in a mix of sports each week, and only spent one extra day per week on their chosen sport.

When I train new athletes, I notice deficiencies based on a lack of breadth in their development. For instance, after watching a couple players struggle to track and catch a tennis ball while dribbling a basketball, I guessed that they had never played baseball or softball and was correct. Their athletic experience consisted of a couple years of soccer at a young age and then a move to basketball. While they have no problem physically catching a basketball, they lacked the coordination to manipulate the basketball and catch a tennis ball because tracking and catching a ball is not a mastered skill. These are very good dribblers – the problem centered with a lack of experience tracking and catching a ball, a skill commonplace in baseball and softball.

Unfortunately, in the United States, many people believe that the quicker a player specializes, the better his or her opportunity for success in his or her sport. Experience and research does not support these beliefs. Specializing in one sport at an early age impedes one’s overall athletic development, which leads to an early stagnation when developing sport-specific skills.

To create better sports programs for our youth athletes, we need to look at the LTAD model and educate parents, administrators and coaches about the importance of overall athletic development prior to sport-specialization.

Brian McCormick is the Founder of the Youth Basketball Coaching Association.

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