The Best Development System – As Many As Possible

“As many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” – Mark O’Sullivan

“Participation. Progression. Performance.” – Daniel Abrahams

For several years, Mark O’Sullivan from AIK in Stockholm, Sweden has advocated a development system that includes “as many as possible, for as long as possible, in the best environment possible.” Some people who concentrate on elite sport disagree and promote early identification, specialization, and exclusion to invest resources in the few, as opposed to the many, but O’Sullivan’s mantra is based on the belief that one cannot identify the talented few at a young age and, more importantly, that every child has a right to play.

As many as possible for as long as possible was the United States’ biggest athlete development advantage throughout the 1900s. People acknowledge the United States’ large population as its major advantage in international competitions, as well as the country’s wealth, but underestimate the benefits of a school-based sports system that allowed millions of children to participate in sports.

I attended a private boys’ Catholic high school. Many attributed our basketball success to recruiting, as a few players transferred into our school during the height of the school’s competitiveness. However, at that time, I imagine there were +/-25 Catholic elementary schools in the area that fed two Catholic high schools. Roughly speaking, +/-15 tended to feed into my high school, and +/-10 fed the other school. Assuming each graduating 8th grade class had 5-10 boys playing on the 8th grade basketball team, 75-150 boys who played on 8th grades teams matriculated to our high school, not to mention boys who attended schools outside our Catholic schools league.

We started on teams in 5th grade. Because they did not like the idea of cutting 5th graders, they started a second team for 5th and 6th graders when I was in 5th grade. Every boy who wanted to play at my school played on one of the two teams. This quickly spread to 3rd and 4th grades while I remained at the school, and eventually down to kindergarten. roughly 10-15 boys in k-8th playing basketball, and this is one school. None of these boys was cut, although there was some stratification with the A and B teams. Each team played a full schedule and received similar coaching.

When I started high school, roughly 125 boys tried out for the freshmen basketball team every year. The school decided cutting down to 15 was too much, so they added a second freshmen team, and eventually a second junior varsity team. That meant one high school had roughly 75 players remaining in the competitive stream. As many as possible for as long as possible. Many sports did not cut anyone through high school.

Somewhere during the ’00s, we decided that this system was was holding the U.S. back from developing more and better athletes, and we needed more private clubs, private trainers, and earlier specialization. When I played, our metropolitan city had two club programs (BCI and Nike); BCI had two teams (u16, u18), I believe, and Nike had one varsity team. BCI went to the BCI National Tournament and Nike went to the Big Time. Other than local games and leagues to prepare for these tournaments, that was the extent of club basketball. Now, club teams reach down to u8s, and they are viewed as vital to development and exposure. Some call themselves “developmental” programs despite cutting players every year. The large number of clubs has some benefits, as they provide playing opportunities for many, but this is offset in many negatives in terms of participation.

Today, in girls basketball, many high schools only have one team for schools with 2500+ students, and many schools do not need tryouts because fewer than 15 players turn out for the team. When I was in high school, these schools had 3 teams (frosh, JV, varsity and sometimes 4 with a frosh-soph team) and had to cut players to get down to the 36 to 48 players on the teams.

Some of the decline is due to the increasing popularity of lacrosse and softball, although they play in different seasons; softball and lacrosse should not prohibit one from playing high-school basketball. Much of the decline in participation is attributed to early specialization, and especially the club teams. Volleyball and softball club teams are known to hoard their players and prevent multi-sport participation. Basketball clubs do the same, as I know coaches who discourage girls from playing volleyball because they believe it will hinder their basketball development. Some believe that the specialization is a net positive, as the school’s best athlete playing one sport instead of three opens opportunities for two other students to make a team. Unfortunately, those players may never have played previously because they were cut at younger ages.

Somehow, we decided that the biggest factor in the U.S.’s sports success over decades is an impediment to success, and we’re undermining ourselves at every level by turning sports development into private for-profit enterprise. We have moved from a system that embodied the “as many as possible for as long as possible” goal and entered the race to the bottom, to use another of O’Sullivan’s phrases. Rather than support systems that increase participation and allow for late talent identification, we wish to identify the talented few at younger and younger ages and ignore everyone else.

This rush to identify talent as pre-adolescents happens as many criticize NBA professionals for their ability to identify the talented at 19+ years of age:

Now, I do not agree with the above entirely, as the statement is true only if the drafted players never improved or were injured, and if all environments, opportunities and coaches were the same. These same issues affect the talent spotting of younger children, except these other factors are magnified even greater at younger ages. If a 19 year-old is not a finished player, what is an 8-year-old?

In every instance when I have met with a federation about talent development and identification, the initial goal is always to find the talented few earlier and pour more resources into those few players. My answer is always the opposite: Find ways to increase participation and delay talent identification. My opposition is likely the reason that none of these federations have hired me, as many time, the people in these management positions do not have time for long-term progress; they need short-term results to keep their jobs. This turnover and the short-term emphasis also stymies the development of the federation, and none of these federations/organizations are in a better place 5-10 years after I spoke to them.

The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches and the school system (including the NCAA), while far from perfect, is a huge advantage in terms of generating a large pool of participants. The goal should be to increase the participation, especially at the developmental ages, not to find reasons to exclude children from playing a sport.

Otherwise, we create a system that has no middle. In my area, there are virtually no players for me to recruit to a junior college. There are very good players who develop in sponsored clubs from 6th-12th grade and sign D1 and D2 scholarships, and there are a lot of bad players. There is little in between. There is no middle, likely because these players were siphoned off to club teams in other sports or they were cut in middle school from one of the few clubs and quit. Creating more opportunities at younger ages increases the middle at the high school level, which makes for better and more competitive games, which only enhances the skills of the “elite”.

As an example, I spoke to the local varsity coach when I lived in a small town. The school district sponsored 6th-12th grade teams, and we lived in a remote area, so few players played on club teams. At tryouts for the 6th-8th grade teams, there were 15-20 girls per age group. Rather than keeping all of the players (2 teams per age group) or keeping a full 12-15 per grade (36-45 total), the varsity coach told me that if he has his way, they would keep the 8 most talented players, cut everyone else, and focus only on those 8 to develop into a championship high-school team in 4-6 years. Beyond the obvious short-sightedness of this idea due, if nothing else, to the high incidence rate of ACL injuries in female basketball players, the best 6th grader was better at soccer, and her high-school did not have a soccer team, so she was likely to attend a different high school, and the best 7th grader’s older sister was a star volleyball player, and she was as likely to end up playing volleyball as basketball. They could have focused on 8 girls only to have one end up at a different school and another end up on volleyball and have a maximum of 6 girls left from 3 grades despite initial interest from 60 girls! That is one way to end up with no freshmen and no junior varsity teams, not to mention child obesity.

If pros cannot confidently identify talent in adults, why do we trust amateurs to identify talent in children? Furthermore, even if we could identify the best at a young age, why do we want to exclude the others from playing? Create more and better opportunities to keep as many as possible involved for as long as possible. The school system likely provides the best opportunity for this.

“Small Ball” is Skill Ball

I saw the above on SacTownRoyalty, and I feel this argument persists. Traditionalists dislike the modern game, and bemoan the lack of back-to-the-basket post play, and they find any reason to favor bigger lineups.

I wrote about the Warriors previously, and specifically Draymond Green’s influence that allows the Warriors to go small. The Warriors’ small ball is less about height, and more about skill.

When I was young, I suffered through Sacramento Kings’ seasons with Joe Kleine as a starting center because the three-point shot was underutilized and a big center was mandatory.

The Modern Day NBA values skill, whether due to rule changes, analytics, Steph Curry, Billy Donovan/Rick Pitino, Vance Walberg/DDM, European influences, or common sense. Often, skill = small because taller players are not allowed to handle the ball or shoot at young ages. When taller, bigger players cannot exploit mismatches on the interior, height loses its impact, especially in the NBA which has all but passed a rule outlawing second shots (teams rarely send more than one player to offensive glass).

If you cannot exploit a smaller defender, the system discourages you from pounding the offensive glass, and you have to chase smaller attackers around the three-point line, negating some of your defensive prowess, your effectiveness is limited, and often replaced by a smaller, more versatile player.

Now that the modern-day NBA has accepted that skill beats size, size is diversifying and developing skills. No longer do we view a 6’8 player who dribbles and passes as an anomaly, and we expect our 7′ to shoot competently. As more taller players develop all-around skills, the skilled, taller player has advantages due to versatility, defensive length, and more.

The teams listed above did not employ traditional centers; Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez is a three-point shooter; Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid plays like a 1990’s SF; Marc Gasol shoots 3s and initiates the offense; and Denver’s Nikola Jokic is a point-center. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the only starting center without a new-age game, but he’s a great compliment as a rim-running lob threat with defensive mobility.

Furthermore, their size comes because players like Simmons, Giannis, Kawhi, Siakam, and others have size and skills to play multiple positions. These teams are not sacrificing skill to add height; they’re building around skilled players who have size and versatility. Skill is king, but when the skilled player has more size, he is that much more valuable in today’s NBA.

Social Shift Pivotal to Next-Level Jump

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Winter 2018.

As a 6th grader dominated a camp that I directed, I asked the organizer to move up the player to the older age group that worked out later. He said that they had asked him to move up, but he wanted to stay with his friends. The player was the tallest and most skilled player in the camp; in the 7th and 8th grade group, he no longer would have been the tallest, but he likely would have been the most skilled. Most adults view this as a lost opportunity because he did not challenge himself, and many coaches or ex-players would characterize him as weak because he avoided the greater challenge. Many may see this as a sign of his generation, and all of its faults.

Instead, his physical size and exceptional skill mislead us. We look at him dominate smaller children and forget that emotionally and socially, they are his peers. He may be physically tall, but he is emotionally and socially young. Playing against older players may benefit his skill development or his physical development, but these decisions must factor in the entire child, not just his visible size or shooting skill. Is playing with older players right for his current bio-psycho-social development, to use a term from Dr. Martin Toms of Birmingham University?

After I spoke to him, he came to both sessions; the early session to play with his friends, and the later session to challenge himself against better players, a challenge that he handled. Ultimately, this was the best mix, and one that factored in the total child from a holistic viewpoint, not one focused solely on his sporting success.

Over the summer, an 8th grader from Chicago verbally committed to attend DePaul University as part of its 2022 men’s basketball recruiting class. I learned of the commitment because he had attended clinics that I had directed in Chicago, although I have not seen him since he was in 6th grade. As early as 4th grade, high schools were keeping an eye on him. This is a tad extreme, but not abnormal in today’s youth sports landscape. The end goal of youth sports has shifted over the past two generations. Whereas youth sports once promoted fun, skill development, participation, and friendship, youth sport now is a billion-dollar business focused on procuring scholarships and producing professional players.

Because of this shift in goals and objectives, we lack the patience to allow children to develop in a slow, appropriate manner, and instead rush this development, which was my initial reaction with the tall, skilled 6th grader. When I coached the 8th grader, he was talented and very coachable, and I hope that continues, but research suggests that this environment — one which pushes children and pre-teens into “elite” competition —neglects the child’s social, emotional, and psychological needs. This rushed development manifests itself in early specialization and the professionalization of our youth sports, such as televised youth championships and national rankings of pre-teens; every aspect of youth sport now sells the idea that children are almost-professionals and require professional training, facilities, and competitions.

We ignore the psychological and emotional impact of this rush from developmental to competitive and competitive to elite at younger ages because of their precocious size or prodigious skill. When a 15-year-old basketball player walks into the gym and towers over his coach, or a 12-year-old Little Leaguer mashes a 375-foot home run on national television, we forget that these are children. This rush to elite competition may hinder skill development, which tends to be the primary concern, but the negative psychological effects may have greater consequences in terms of long-term success and happiness.

A Danish study found that the most crucial characteristic of the transition into a high performance or elite environment is a “shift in the social logic of the sport from fun, enjoyment and being together to seriousness, competition and investment” (Larsen et al., 2012). Managing these transitions successfully is a prerequisite for a long and successful career, whereas failure to cope with the demands of transitions may lead to premature career termination (Stambulova, 2009; Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler & Côté, 2009). On a smaller scale, the 6th grader was not prepared psychologically to make this transition away from fun and togetherness to seriousness and investment. Naturally, this must occur for him to pursue elite sports (college or professional), but an earlier transition does not necessarily help his pursuit. Instead, an immature athlete likely lacks the psychological skills and emotional maturity to cope with these heightened demands.

Those who progress to an elite level take responsibility for their own learning and progress (Elferink-Gemser et al., 2016; Jonker et al., 2009; Toering et al., 2010). They “decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own” (Coyle, 2011). This becomes difficult when coaches, parents, and trainers dictate every second of a child’s sporting existence, rather than empowering the child to decide for himself. By allowing the 6th grader to make decisions for himself, he was in control. When I expressed my confidence in him to succeed with the older players, and allowed him to come to the session with his friends too, he took responsibility for himself. He made the decision. Now, he has started to take ownership of his development, which is a key factor in succeeding at a high level.

As another example, this summer, a girl headed to a local NCAA D2 school showed up for numerous workouts at the junior college where I coach now. She turned down my offer in the spring, then randomly showed up in the gym one day. She had my number from when I recruited her, and she texted me almost every day for about three weeks to see our schedule. On most days, she took uber to the gym because her single mom was at work with the car. She made the decision that she wanted to work out, and she found a way; she took ownership of her improvement rather than waiting for a coach or a parent or a trainer to organize something for her.

A critical event in one’s athletic career is the transition from talented junior to the elite senior level, or for most U.S. athletes, from high school to college. This transition is described as a very difficult one, and many athletes acknowledge their failure to cope with it (Stambulova et al., 2009). Rather than transitioning as 17 and 18 year-olds moving to college competition, we have created an environment that encourages this transition in middle school, as with the 8th grader. If many older athletes struggled or failed to cope with the transition, what can we expect from pre-teens?

Among the most prominent demands involved in this transition are learning to balance sporting goals with other life goals, reorganizing one’s lifestyle to fit life as an elite athlete, finding one’s individual path in sport, coping with the pressure of selections, winning prestige among peers, judges and coaches, and maintaining positive relationships (Stambulova, 2009). Delaying this transition allows a child to develop greater psychological skills to complement his prodigious physical skills in order to cope with and thrive through these transitions. When this transition is forced upon a child, he or she may not be prepared emotionally or psychologically, and the lack of preparation may lead to frustrations, struggle, and quitting.

Ultimately, struggle is good for one’s development. Struggle forces one beyond one’s comfort zone, and it is the adaptation to increased demands that stimulates growth. However, with children especially, these struggles should be small hurdles or slightly beyond the child’s current level, not exponential leaps forward. The 6th grader eventually played with slightly older players; he does not, however, need to train like a professional player or devote his entire life to basketball at this age. He can leave the transition to elite competition to his late teens.

Unfortunately, the 8th grader has transitioned to the world of elite competition. This level of elite is in name more than action, as elite, to me, refers more to those competing for world championships as opposed to higher prep player rankings. However, his commitment has changed his environment. His name will be on web sites, and people will write about his games. A bad game will result in writers and anonymous commenters poking holes in his game and questioning his ability, likely calling him overrated. Does an 8th grade need or deserve that much attention and scrutiny? Does it help his transition to an elite level? If he has the emotional maturity, social safety net of supportive peers and family, and psychological skills to cope, he may develop, learn and thrive because of the experiences; without those tools and support, he may lose the joy of playing and the motivation to improve. Are the benefits worth the risk, or would the child be better off resisting the allure of the scholarship and recruiting offers to progress at his own speed once his emotional and psychological maturity has caught up to his physical prowess?

References

Coyle, D. (2011). The new way to identify talent: The G-factor. The Talent Code blog, December 2.

Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., Coelho-E-Silva, M.J., & Visscher, C. (2011). The marvels of elite sports: how to get there?. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(9), 683-84.

Jonker, L., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Toering, T.T., Lyons, J., & Visscher, C. (2010). Academic performance and self-regulatory skills in elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(14), 1605-14.

Larsen, C. H., Alfermann, D. & Christensen, M. K. (2012). Psychosocial skills in a youth soccer academy: A holistic ecological perspective. Sport Science Review, 21(3-4), 51- 74.

Stambulova, N. (2009). Talent development in sport: The perspective of career transitions. In E. Tsung-Min Hung, R. Lidor & D. Hackfort (Eds.), Psychology of sport excellence (pp. 63-74). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Stambulova, N., Alfermann, D., Statler, T. & Côté, J. (2009). Career development and transitions of athletes: The ISSP position stand. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7, 395-412.

Toering, T.T., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., & Visscher, C. (2009). Self- regulation and performance level of elite and non-elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(14), 1509-17.

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