Parenting from the stands

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September/October 2016.

Toward the end of an u14 girls’ soccer game, a father yelled to his daughter, “Don’t forget to have fun.” The comment stood out because it was the first positive comment from a parent during the entire game. I turned to another player standing near me, and asked, “How are you supposed to have fun when you are yelled at constantly?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Tell me about it.”  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

Avoid the Fast Track to Youth Sports’ Burnout

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2009.

This week, I looked at the roster for a Division I women’s program to check on a player that I had watched in high school. She was no longer on the roster. I emailed a high school coach and asked about the girl, and he said that she had “lost the love” and quit.

Last fall, the media made a big deal about Elena Delle Donne dropping out of the University of Connecticut where she was supposed to join the roster of former McDonald’s All-Americans and National Player of the Years to compete for an NCAA National Championship.

Delle Donne has been a star for nearly half of her life: in a Slam article published during her sophomore year of high school titled “Is Elena Delle Donne ready to take women’s basketball to the next level? The better question might be whether the women’s game is ready for her,” her coach, Veronica Algeo said, “Bottom line, she’s as close to a celebrity as this state has. She’s the face of Delaware in the sports world…and she probably will be for two decades to come.”

When she quit basketball, and school, to enroll at the University of Delaware, it was national news. With an ESPN Outside the Lines feature, it is arguably the biggest news story of the year in women’s college basketball.

Her story is so big because people do not understand why a girl with so much talent could quit playing basketball (she plays volleyball at Delaware). However, her decision is not that unusual; unfortunately, I know several players who quit before or during college, forfeiting college scholarships in the process. Delle Donne is noteworthy because of her fame; however, many players make the same choice every year because they burnout.

The January issue of Men’s Health explains that internal motivation is an anecdote to burnout.

“A 2008 study found that athletes are less likely to experience burnout if their motivation stems from competition with themselves, as opposed to competition with others” (Carolyn Kylstra).

Intuitively, this makes sense. As a literature major at UCLA, I almost never completed a book. I did not enjoy reading; I was reading to pass a test or to learn enough to answer a question in class. I was not reading for myself, for my own learning or for my enjoyment.

When I graduated, I consumed books. In the spring after my college graduation, I worked about three hours per day and spent the rest of the time reading. My bedroom had a mattress on the floor and stacks of books. I loved reading. It was the same activity, and the books were of similar subjects, but I read at my pace on my terms, not to please a professor or finish an assignment.

Unfortunately, we worry so much about our kids’ self-esteem that we start the external rewards at an early age. Every child gets a trophy at the end of the season because we feel that kids need rewards to stay motivated. Rather than develop a love for playing the game, we substitute external rewards.

In the January issue of Inc, columnist Joel Spoelsky writes:

“According to psychologists, extrinsic motivation has a way of replacing internal motivation. The very act of rewarding workers for a job well done tends to make them think they are doing it solely for the reward; if the reward stops, the good work stops…They will forget their innate, intrinsic desire to do good work.”

These days, it seems the sole reason for youth sports is to earn a college scholarship. Players specialize early and dedicate their time and energy to one pursuit. Parents pay for personal trainers, and players jump from team to team and high school to high school to find the right coach or more playing time or enough exposure to college scouts.

The external reward of a college scholarship replaces the original intrinsic motivation that helped the player achieve a certain measure of success in the first place.

However, what happens when the player accomplishes her goal and signs her college scholarship? For some (many?), that is the end-goal. It seems players dream more about the scholarship than playing college basketball. But, a college scholarship is a beginning, not an end.

The player’s approach often determines her enjoyment at the college level. After spending three to four years pursuing an external reward, how does the player recapture the intrinsic motivation?

Without internal motivation, playing college basketball resembles a job, much like reading literature for a class rather than for enjoyment. Basketball is no longer a game to be played, but a chore to finish before moving on to something that they want to do.

Few people on the outside understand this, however, because people equate playing basketball with their personal recreational activities, not with their job. Most people do their job because of external rewards – typically their paycheck, but possibly a raise, promotion, etc. By adulthood, we are conditioned to chase external rewards, which is why people want a bigger house or a more expensive car. We forget to embrace our intrinsic motivation.

However, those who pursue recreational activities consistently follow their internal motivation. Nobody forces you to get out of bed at 6:00AM to run a 10k or to spend your Saturday morning on a 50-mile bike ride. You choose these activities because you find enjoyment.

A player on a college scholarship does not play basketball in the same way that the gym rats in the campus recreation center play basketball. The gym rats play when they want. They start when they want and finish when they want. They play for fun.

A scholarship athlete, however, is told where to be and when to be there. The coach scripts the practice and the player follows directions. The coach concentrates on winning, as he needs to keep his job so his kids can eat.

If the player is unable to shift her motivation to find something that she enjoys in the playing, she is likely to burn out and quit (unless she cannot afford to quit; then she might keep playing even though she is unhappy, just so she can complete her degree).

Similarly, every January, people make resolutions to lose weight. They force themselves to do things that they think they dislike or that they associate with negative experiences. These people fail to keep their resolutions.

Those who manage to follow-through for more than a couple weeks do so because they find internal motivation. They choose an activity that they enjoy or they make it a social activity with friends. They do it because they want to do it, and they enjoy the exercise or the experience, not because they feel compelled to do it.

It is unfortunate that we have created a youth sports system so engulfed by an external reward. It hurts the scholarship athletes who lose their motivation once they sign the scholarship and achieve their reward, but it is even worse for the less competitive athletes stuck in an overly competitive system even though they just want to play and have fun.

Sports like skateboarding are on the rise because many kids are driven away from more structured sports at early ages because the external motivations lead to burnout. They choose less competitive, more collaborative sports because they create an intrinsic motivation.

Nobody forces a kid to skateboard or surf; he chooses to skateboard or surf because it is fun and he likes the feeling or the challenge or the learning. Team sports used to provide the same type of experience; sadly, in the increasingly competitive arena of youth sports, situations like Delle Donne’s are growing more frequent because the sports move away from the things which draw kids to sports originally.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues

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