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.

How much is too much

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.22 (July 2017). Buy Volume 7 as a paperback or a Kindle. 

A few weeks ago, I watched a high-school player practice and listened to her coach and parents discuss her progress and training. Their discussion caused me to fear for the player. Unfortunately, her story is becoming increasingly common.  Read more

Parenting through the Athletic Process

When I was a child, parenting a wannabe athlete was much easier: in the fall, I played soccer for the club affiliated with my church; in winter, I played basketball for my school; in spring, I played Little League at the league five minutes from my house; and, during the summer, I was fortunate to attend a camp or two around family vacations and going to the local pool and basketball courts.

These days, there are so many choices and, with the advent of the Internet, so much more information and misinformation. There are so many different sporting opportunities. Heck, there is a professional soccer league, poker players on television and mainstream mixed martial arts. There is NJB, AAU, YBOA, BCI and other youth basketball organizations; there are youth strength training facilities; private basketball skill trainers; private basketball facilities; showcase events and more. How does a parent navigate his or her son or daughter through the youth athlete development process?

The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article with the father of two collegiate golfers. While golf is different than basketball in numerous ways, the advice and examples that he offers parallels in many ways the research conducted on talented teenagers and expert performers by sports psychologists and educators like K. Anders Ericsson, Benjamin Bloom, and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.

My biggest regret – and greatest warning to others – is letting golf become the center of the family to the exclusion of the needs and desires of other family members.

Looking back, the scheduling of golf tournaments should have been subordinate to the scheduling of family vacations. There’s always another tournament to play.

When they were 15, the boys quit going on our church’s week-long youth camping trip because they needed that time to practice for the U.S. Junior tournament…

Interestingly, the closest either of them came to qualifying for the U.S. Junior was the day after they returned from church camp – with no practice – when they were freshmen.

I always see advertisements for big AAU Tournaments that seem to coincide with family-type days: Mother’s Day Madness, Easter Classic, Father’s Day Spectacular. It seems like those would be the best times not to schedule a tournament and to give the players (and families) a week off. As the dad says, there is always another tournament to play. Unfortunately, it seems like we have this mentality that if you miss a week, you will fall behind.

In the athlete development process, we place too much emphasis on the on-court action and ignore the idea of the 24-hour athlete: if we assume that an athlete trains two hours per day, the things that he or she does in the other 22 hours per day has as much of an effect on his or her success. If the player lacks proper nutrition or does not sleep or otherwise does not take care of his or her body and mind, the player undermines his or her on-court training. Skipping a weekend tournament to celebrate Father’s Day or missing a week of summer league to go on a family vacation is not going to stunt a player’s career, but going 52 weeks straight may affect the player’s drive and motivation.

Next, the father suggests:

Find your child a great instructor who can help them as they grow and who understands their swing.

You can look at this in two ways with basketball, either a coach or a trainer. The benefit of a trainer is that you can stay with a trainer as you change coaches. I’ve worked with a player for several years and he has probably played for 10 different team coaches in that time. It is hard for any one of those coaches to take a long term view of the player’s development if he only coaches the player for a short season or a couple months before he moves to the next league or moves to the next level at his school.

On the other hand, some programs do a good job of keeping players together over the course of a number of years. For youth club/AAU programs, I think this should be the goal, as opposed to recruiting new players. Many parents however are persuaded to leave a good club for various reasons. I worked with a club that was a great learning environment with very good coaches who cared about the players and all the players got along really well. However, one parent was nudged by an outside influence and she decided to move her daughter to a more prominent club, and the club started to fall apart competitively. I have seen this happen several times. Most of the time, the local club with caring coaches, plenty of playing time and friendly teammates is a better overall experience than chasing a better coach or more competitive program.

If you find a program with players who stick together over a period of several years with coaches who care and work hard, consider yourself lucky. Don’t mess up by thinking that there is something better out there. The grass ain’t always greener.

If your child has a goofy swing, grip or ball flight, fix it sooner rather than later. At the college level, you won’t see “four-knuckle” grips or big hookers or slicers.

On the basketball side, I see this all the time. Players spending a great amount of time playing the game and training to become better, but they have incredible shooting flaws. If your son or daughter loves the game enough to train – as opposed to playing for fun – find someone who can teach him or her to shoot properly. Now, a couple lessons are not enough. To correct a player’s shooting technique requires a lot of time and concentration, and the player must be motivated to work on his or her own, not just play games or train with a trainer.

When I train players, I help them for an hour or two per week, but the development has to come on their own in the in-between times. If I am a good trainer, I help the player learn the correct feel so that he can self-correct when he works out on his own. But, if the player does not practice in between sessions, my impact is minimal unless their budget is endless and they want to hire me five days a week. Players who want to be great do not need basketball babysitters – they are motivated to work on their own.

If your kid goes from shooting in the mid-80s to a scratch golfer in a few years or less, it doesn’t mean scores in the mid-60s are just around the corner. Sometimes shooting par or the mid-70s is as good as a kid will get. This is especially true if the items above are ignored.

This is an important and neglected point. I hear from parents, players and coaches who seem to think that the hours and money invested in youth basketball mean that the player deserves a scholarship. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Colleges recruit based on needs and talent. While a college scholarship is a reward, in a sense, it really isn’t. It is a reward in the same sense that when you graduate from college and get a job, you are rewarded for your effort in school. It is not a reward in the same way that being voted all-league is a reward. A college scholarship is the beginning, not the end. Coaches recruit based on what they believe you will do in the future, not what you have done in the past.

Improvement is not a continual forward, upward line. There are hills and valleys. How a player handles the struggles ultimately determines, to a great degree, the eventual success of the player. One of the most important skills for a player to develop is the coping skills to handle mistakes, failure or rejection.

Navigating youth sports is different for parents today than it was during their youth. Unfortunately, there are many questions, but few places to turn for real answers. Most answers on message boards and through the media are tinged with bias and agendas, and most people follow the herd, figuring that if Player A earned a scholarship and went through XYZ, then XYZ is the path to a scholarship. However, the process for one person may not be the right process for another – many players reach a level of success in spite of the road that they took, not because of it.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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