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. 

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

A Story of Athletic Talent Development

Originally published in the March/April 2010 Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In grade school, everyone talked about the Morrison clan. At that time, they were four brothers (they added a little sister when we moved to high school) grouped between six grades, and each excelled athletically. He was the strongest, fastest child in his grade. Before I knew anything about competitive sports, my dad showed me their names in the box scores from local swimming events in the Sunday paper. Before I realized that soccer was a real sport – it was never on television, and I had never seen it played outside our recreational season – they played on a “competitive team.”

Three played Division I soccer, and one was a 1st Team All-American and professional player. They also played high school basketball (at least one was team MVP) and baseball (despite not playing Little League) and probably would have played football if it did not conflict with soccer. Since they were my only grade school friends who excelled in soccer (and swimming for that matter), we figured that they were born as good soccer players or their dad made them into good soccer players somehow.

Every town seems to have a similar family. In Sports Illustrated in February, Gary Smith detailed such a family from Grand Forks, North Dakota: the Lamoureux family. By now, the Lamoureuxes may be famous – the twin daughters, Jocelyne and Monique played for the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team at the Olympics. Their four older brothers are All-American or professional hockey players in their own right.

Smith recounts the typical story of athlete development. The story starts with parental support, as hockey is not a cheap sport to play with all the equipment to buy and team and rink fees to pay. Chauffeuring six children to hockey practice and games can be a full-time job, and none of the children can excel without that type of support to allow the children an opportunity to develop their talents.

Of course, when six children excel to such a degree, other parents get jealous. Rather than celebrate their achievements or learn from their experience, people criticize the parents. As Smith writes:

“There was only one way that many Lamoureuxes could play the game at that level of aggression and skill, some Grand Forkers grumbled: Those children had no choice, they were over-scheduled robots. Why, their father was planning to ship the boys to Russia and the girls to Winnipeg to master the game. He beat them if they didn’t play and work out hard went the wild rumors heard by the kids. He made them do drills and box each other in their basement.”

People said the same thing about the Morrisons. When other people succeed, those who are not as successful create excuses to explain their own lack of success and to knock down the successful. However, these comments show a lack of understanding of the talent development process. While there are some famous examples to the contrary – Pistol Pete Maravich, Jennifer Capriati, Todd Marinovich – pushy parents are not the way to develop talent. Successful people – in sports, school or business – are self-motivated and choose to engage in the activity for their own enjoyment and satisfaction.

Moreover, often the circumstances leading to excellence are lucky or pure happenstance. I do not remember why or how the Morrisons ended up on a swim team when they were so young. As I recall, he may have been the only one in my class with a pool in his backyard when we started first grade, so maybe that had something to do with it or maybe his mother or father was a swimmer (I never asked).

In the case of the Lamoureuxes, one reason for their athletic prowess was purely coincidental. In North Dakota, there are streams called coulees cut from the Ice Age. In 1987, a developer in Grand Forks knocked out a bank and created a 70×200-foot hole and filled it with water. The Lamoureuxes did not notice this on the next cul-de-sac when they moved into the neighborhood. However, as Smith explains:

One freak year the shallow coulee froze in late September, and a few other times at Halloween. But it almost always congealed by mid-November, a month or more before the local rinks opened, allowing the Lamoureuxes—who spent 20 hours a weekend at the coulee and another dozen during the week—to amass thousands more skating hours than their peers.

Recent books like Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers cite and support K. Anders Ericsson’s research into expert performance that has found that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Living around the corner from the coulee, something that occurred completely by chance, provided the young Lamoureuxes a giant advantage, and they made the most of their advantage by playing early and often on the ice.

While The Talent Code and Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence argue for more structured practice, in Developing Sport Expertise, Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas argue that deliberate play is as instrumental as structured practice, and this play counts toward the 10,000 hours needed for expert performance. They define deliberate play as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

As Smith explains, the Lamoureuxes would engage in deliberate play for hours, all the while sharpening their skating and stick skills, as well as developing their game awareness.

“They’d bundle up in long johns, extra socks, sweatpants, snow pants, sweatshirts, winter jackets, bomber hats, two pairs of gloves and sometimes, at 20 or 30 below, when the prairie winds hurled a mix of snow and dirt that locals called snirt, in wool face masks that made them look like frosted fiends…

“The kids would launch practice shots at Phil, who’d begun goaltending in his diapers…Then they’d play free-for-all, a cacophony of chirps over big saves and takeaways, until someone shouted, “Sticks in the middle!” At that they’d fling their sticks into a heap, one boy wading into the pile with his wool hat pulled over his eyes, blindly grabbing two at a time and tossing one to either side again and again till none remained, divvying up the group into two teams.

“When they raced along the railroad ties girding the embankment on the Howes’ side, they were flying along the boards at the Montreal Forum. It was their Forum, no adult eyes on them, emboldening Phil to call out, “I’m Richter!” and Jacques to yelp, “I’m Messier!” and Pierre-Paul and Mario to turn into Leetch and Lemieux, and all of them to try the wriggles and whirls and between-the-legs sorcery they saw on TV.”

When we explain athletic success, these are the moments that we ignore. These days, everyone has a personal trainer and sports lessons. Around the same time that Smith wrote about the Lamoreuxes, Luke Winn wrote about University of Virginia star basketball player Sylvan Landesberg. Winn asks him about his trainers, as he had a “dribbling coach, a shooting coach, a weightlifting specialist and a boxing instructor,” in addition to his club-team coach and his high school coach. This is the modern-day way to develop a star athlete: surround him with more and more high-priced instructors.

However, regardless of the instructors and coaches, great athletes spring from a love of playing the game – they are not manufactured by specialty coaches.

“The first layer of the heart—that’s what the twins’ coach in high school, Gordie Stafford, would call that deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game that was being implanted at the coulee. That’s what no organized version of a sport could implant in the chest of a child, what no dynasty dad or minivanning mom could ever arrange. That’s what made the Lamoureuxes lucky.”

Talent development has more to do with playing hockey on a frozen pond in below-freezing weather than working with the right coach. A coach or trainer can augment a player’s development by giving him some technical tools, but without the intrinsic motivation and pure desire to play the game, the technical skills are insufficient. The great athletes develop the “deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game.”

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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