Specialization and Training Volumes: What does it all mean?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2011.

A recent article from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports titled “Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports” concluded that athletes who specialized later (mid to late teens) fared better than those who specialized in a sport at an earlier age. In truth, the study focused more on training volume, than specialization. Read more

The Pressure of Playing for UConn Women’s Basketball

Last week, UConn women’s basketball player Samarie Walker transferred to Kentucky. Since her transfer, some negative things have been written about Walker, while others have questioned UConn, as Walker is far from the first high-profile player to leave.

In the Hartford Courant, Geno-Auriemma apologist John Altavilla wrote “Some Players Find They Can’t Handle Being Part of UConn Women’s Basketball,” which has a pro-UConn viewpoint, but an interesting perspective on high-level women’s basketball.

Former UConn player Courtney Gaine described her experience and sheds some light on the problems inherent in our youth basketball culture.

“When you arrive in Storrs, it’s undeniably a shock to the system. That’s true for all freshmen in college, but when you go there to play basketball, you come from a world where you rarely failed into a situation where you will fail every day — and someone’s going to let you know that.

I have a hard time believing that Auriemma is the only coach who seeks perfection or stresses excellence. I am going to assume that most players face these struggles when they enter college. Auriemma may be more demanding than some, but every player faces this transition to college.

The problem is the bolded statement: how can a player enter college without having failed? Sure, UConn recruits players like Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore who are undeniably among the best to play the game. Ever.

However, if youth coaches, trainers, high school coaches and AAU coaches never challenge these athletes or help these athletes develop the right mindset, they are setting up these players for difficulties at the next level.

Recently, many questioned the rash of freshmen transfers in men’s basketball. The transfers result from the same issue. Players leave high school with a Fixed Mindset and struggle to adjust to the more competitive, more failure-inducing college level.

When a player possesses a Fixed Mindset (a concept developed by Dr. Carol Dweck in Mindset), they react poorly to difficulties or challenges. A person with a Fixed Mindset believes that talent is innate – therefore, any struggle is indicative of a lack of talent, and their ego often forces the player to find an excuse, not try as hard or find a less competitive situation which reaffirms one’s belief in his talent.

When a high school superstar leaves high school virtually unchallenged, and enters an atmosphere at UConn or another high profile program filled with similarly talented players, the Fixed Mindset can be debilitating. Rather than working harder to maintain one’s position or fight for playing time, players with the Fixed Mindset will find excuses for their lack of performance. If the player has to work hard, it is a sign of lack of talent. If one believes talent is innate, and therefore beyond one’s control, the realization that others are just as talented can be de-motivating. For a player with a Growth Mindset who believes that talent develops through hard work and practice, an environment with equally competitive teammates creates a positive challenge and motivates the player to work harder.

The players with a Fixed Mindset are ill-equipped mentally to handle the more competitive situations because they were not prepared for challenges while in their formative years. Many players, especially the elite female players, progress without many challenges or difficulties. When I tried out for my freshmen high school basketball team, 100 boys tried out. Last year, for our girls’ team, every girl who tried out made the team, and half of the J.V. team was comprised of freshmen, one who had never played basketball on a team. Similarly, even on the elite AAU teams, very few elite players struggle for playing time or to get shots, and most high school teams feature only 1-2 potential college players.

Players seek out trainers to improve their skills, but most training sessions are built for success not failure – how many players return to a trainer if they do not feel like they improved during that session even though improvement and learning is a long-term process?

Trainers, AAU coaches and high school coaches see a prodigious talent like Maya Moore or Bria Hartley and know that the player can help them make their reputation. Rather than push these players, and risk losing the player to another team, school or trainer, many praise them constantly – they never fail, so they never learn to cope with failure.

Bria Hartley trains with Jerry Powell, a friend of mine. I know Hartley felt failure before she traveled to Storrs. Jerry ensures it. It is part of his workouts. He wants his elite players to struggle. I have watched her work out. She was prepared mentally to deal with Auriemma’s demands because Jerry applies the same type of competition and mental demands. Consequently, she has adapted well as a freshman.

Geno Auriemma describes the environment:

“Everyone wants to play here, and sometimes we [the coaches] think they can,” Auriemma said. “But when they get here we find out that they can’t because they struggle. You have to be super competitive just to survive because it’s not good enough to just try hard. You need to be result-oriented.”

I disagree. I think it is more than competitiveness. In women’s basketball, I think we easily get away with citing a lack of toughness or competitiveness, because they are girls or women and toughness and competitiveness are not the first traits associated with women.

Not every issue can be explained by toughness or competitiveness. As Gaine implied, to succeed in the highly competitive environment, you have to be competitive, but you have to have the right mindset. Auriemma seeks perfection, but there are two types of perfectionists. Maladaptive perfectionists fear criticism, worry about making mistakes and desire admiration. One can see how a maladaptive perfectionist, despite her desire for perfection which is the same as Auriemma’s goal, would not handle Auriemma’s coaching well.

Adaptive perfectionists view perfection with more of a Growth Mindset. They constantly strive for improvement because they know improvement is possible and within their control. They strive for goals that are attainable – for UConn, winning a national championship is a very attainable goal.

Auriemma expresses this difference:

“It’s about doing it in a way that can’t be done any better,” Auriemma said. “That is the goal every day. Accepting a Division I scholarship means you sign a contract. You will do everything in your power to be the best and we will do everything in our power to help you.”

When said in this way, what’s the problem? A coach’s goal should be to maximize each player’s and the team’s performance. However, Auriemma is clearly an adaptive perfectionist. He sets high, but attainable goals and works hard every day to achieve those goals because he knows the result is within their control.

Unfortunately, in recruiting, he likely recruits players who are maladaptive perfectionists or recruits who have a Fixed Mindset. Rather than dismissing these players as uncompetitive, when they find themselves in this situation, whether at UConn or elsewhere as I believe many if not most college students and athletes have difficulty with this transition, these players need mental skills training or a sports psychology consultant or a knowledgeable coach who can work with the player on changing his or her mindset.

Players with the right mindset and coping skills obviously thrive under Auriemma (and other similar coaches). However, as he says, he is not for everyone. Rather than dismissing the others, as is the tone of the article, we need to examine the way we develop players and develop the mental skills to accompany the physical gifts. Helping players to develop a Growth Mindset or adaptive perfectionism will help with the adjustment to college, the more competitive playing field and more demanding coaches.

Parent’s Guide to Talent Development

Talent development is a process and developing the proper psychological skills and mental approach is as important as developing one’s vertical jump or shooting mechanics. Unfortunately, when evaluating talent, recruiting players or drafting prospects, one cannot accurately measure a player’s mental and psychological skills and talents.

How do you measure a player’s work ethic? How do you ascertain his stick-to-itiveness? How do you gauge his motivation? How does the talented player react when the game is no longer easy? How do young athletes handle the pressure of early expectations? How do players handle mistakes and criticism?

At the highest levels, the physical differences are minimal.  Elite performers separate themselves through their work ethic, competitiveness and mental and psychological skills and talents.

The following five steps offer parents a guide to navigate the complex talent development process.

1. Work Ethic

Magic Johnson says, “The best players are almost always the hardest workers.” Natural talent, size and athleticism can take a player far, but nobody reaches an expert level without a tremendous work ethic.

“Deron [Williams of the Utah Jazz] was the type of guy who always worked extremely hard,” [Cleve] Ryan [Williams’ middle school coach] goes on. “Every day in high school he was the last one to leave the gym. He made himself into a great player by putting time and work into it.”

Everyone talks about working hard, and everyone knows that to reach a high level he must work hard, but why do some people develop the necessary work ethic while others never do?

Parents influence the future expert performer through the values they exhibit daily (Bloom; Csikszentmihalyi, et. al). Most expert performers learn values of hard work and always doing one’s best from their parents.

Children learn from their parents, and when parents exhibit these values consistently and early in the child’s life, the child adopts these values. Allowing their child to slide, complaining about a coach or accepting mediocrity shapes the child’s personality.

Children see parents who always work hard and who never accept anything but perfection, whether doing the dishes or making a million-dollar deal, and adopt these attitudes and values. The greatest consistency between expert performers is their work ethic, and in nearly every study, they note their parent’s expectations of doing one’s best and working hard.

2. Encourage a Learning Goal Orientation

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck classifies people as Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset. People with a Growth Mindset have a “Learning Orientation.” They view learning as a process and believe they can develop their talents over time. A setback does not indicate a lack of talent, but a need to work harder.

People with a Fixed Mindset have an “Outcome Orientation” and believe that talent is fixed or innate. A setback indicates a lack of talent and creates doubt, often leading to the person giving up, rather than working harder.

Individuals develop a Learning Orientation or Outcome Orientation early in life and their parent’s and teacher’s comments affect their orientation. When a parent, teacher or coach concentrates on the result, the individual identifies with the outcome.

When a teacher or parent praises an “A” and credits the student’s intellect, the student values the “A” and equates an “A” with intelligence. A subsequent “B” questions his intelligence. However, if the teacher or parent praises the student’s study habits or effort when he receives an “A,” he views the “A” as a reward for his effort and hard work, not his natural intellect. A subsequent “B” signals a need for more effort, not an assault on his intelligence. As Dweck notes:

“Students for whom outcome is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine – and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn.”

A Learning Orientation encourages growth and improvement. A young player with an Outcome Orientation is unwilling to step outside his comfort zone.

When I instruct young shooters, I ask them to concentrate on the shot’s feel and not worry about makes and misses. The goal is not to count makes, but to improve the technique. I direct my comments toward a Learning Orientation because growth and improvement supersede success.

Unfortunately, coach and parent expectations often pressure players into an Outcome Orientation, as comments pertain to makes and misses, not signs of improvement.

The way a player reacts to his success or failure affects his motivation and work ethic. Motivation increases if the athlete believes the factors are stable, internal and in one’s control (Gould).

A player can explain a successful shot by saying, “I made the shot because I am a good shooter,” (Stable) or “I made the shot because I was lucky” (Unstable).

He could say, “I made the shot because I work hard every day shooting 500 shots after school,” (Internal) or “I made the shot because it was an easy shot” (External).

Or, he could say, “I made the shot because I used proper shooting technique and shot inside my shooting range,” (In one’s control) or “I made the shot because the defense played poorly” (Out of one’s control).

If a player believes he made a shot because he was lucky, it was an easy shot or the opponent played poorly, the basket does not improve his future expectancy of success. He attributes his success to factors outside his control, which easily change. Therefore, this success does not improve his motivation or his confidence.

Fixed Mindset people believe talent is stable. This increases motivation as long as one is successful, but when one faces the inevitable hurdles, the person questions his talent.

A Fixed Mindset person believes success is out of his control and determined externally. When he is unsuccessful, he is not inspired to work harder, but instead gives up because the failure means he lacks talent.

Growth Mindset people believe their effort determines their success, not their inherent gifts or traits. Maximizing their potential is within their own control and determined by their effort and opportunity.

Nobody reaches any level of success without hard work, so parents must encourage a Growth Mindset through comments targeted at the player’s effort and improvement, not just the outcome or result.

“Research has revealed that in a motivational climate of mastery or task goal [learning] orientation, there are more adaptive motivational patterns, such as positive attitudes, increased effort and effective learning strategies. In contrast, a motivational climate of outcome orientation has been linked with less adaptive motivational patterns, such as low persistence, low effort and attribution of failures to (low) ability” (Gould).

Csikszentmihalyi concludes that “what characterizes people who use their skills to the utmost is that they enjoy the hardships and the challenges of their task. It is not that they are more likely to encounter pleasant experiences but that they persevere when they meet difficulties that would daunt others and occasionally succeed in turning experiences that others find meaningless or threatening into highly enjoyable ones.”

Expert performers develop the proper motivational strategies for success because they cope with failures, whether a loss, a poor performance or a challenging question, and learn from mistakes without losing confidence. They view learning skills and improving as a challenge, not an admission of failure. These motivational strategies help the athlete maintain confidence when others lose it and persist when others quit. While those who lean toward outcome goals are afraid to fail, expert performers strive to get better and are unafraid of challenges and commitment.

3. Start the child in sports like any other child and support his or her interest.

Parents subtly, and purposely, influence a child’s pursuits. Press Maravich, Pistol Pete’s father, wanted his son to develop an interest in basketball, so he made basket after basket while his son watched in awe and then gave his son the ball so he could try (Kriegel). Press’ actions were calculated, but not overt, and he waited for Pete to show an interest before he started to instruct and push him.

Parents want their child to succeed, primarily for his happiness and self-esteem. In an effort to help their child, many parents push him into a competitive training environment before he is developmentally ready. They believe an early start gives their child an advantage, but elite performers’ introduction to the activity and their initial experiences mirror those of average performers (Bloom; Csikszentmihalyi, et. al). Future Olympians and professional athletes start their athletic careers just as other kids, playing recreationally and having fun rather than entering a professionalized training system.

Children start sports innocently and without expectations. A child shoots baskets with a friend or family member and plays at recess and P.E. Parents enter their son or daughter into a local league. Initially, the league’s competitiveness or coach’s brilliance is unimportant. Most important is the coach’s interest in the sport and the players. Most expert performers have a coach who shows an interest in their success at a young age.

Initial coaches must provide a positive, fun environment, and they must show an interest in each player so he feels special and talented. To develop a successful player, the initial experiences must be fun and motivating, as optimal development requires a passion for the sport.

4. Do not rush the process.

In other activities, from piano to chess to swimming, children gradually progress through three different phases – the Early Years, Middle Years and Late Years or the Romance, Precision and Generalization Phases (Bloom; Csikszentmihalyi, et. al). The transition from one phase to the next is indefinite, as a child gradually changes his motivations and needs.

In the Early Years, the child needs a safe, fun atmosphere with a supportive coach who makes the child feel special and generates enthusiasm for the sport. In the Middle Years, the athlete needs better instruction and an opportunity to master new skills. In the Late Years, the child needs to use the skills and enhance his performance. The progression from novice to expert performer is gradual. Rushing the process and missing essential steps along the way ignore the psychological needs and motivations of young athletes and is as a detriment, not an impetus for his success.

5. Find the appropriate coach/environment at the appropriate age or developmental phase.

When a child illustrates a desire to play the sport, as opposed to just playing, find better instruction to facilitate the athlete’s growth. Oftentimes, the initial coach recognizes the young athlete’s potential and encourages his parents to find a more advanced environment.

This transition happens naturally and gradually and signifies a transition from the “Romance Phase” to the “Precision Phase,” or a shift from a recreational player to a developmental player. The coach’s role changes to meet the player’s motivational needs. When the player enters the Precision Phase, he needs instruction and feedback from a skilled coach to enhance his skills and nurture his talent. He needs a coach who encourages his learning. At this age, players need to make and learn from mistakes. Without mistakes, there is no growth. Nobody develops perfectly; a baby does not walk on his first try. The goal is not perfection, but improvement.

Coaches must provide proper motivation and stimulation during this phase. These players require fundamental instruction, as these are the “skill hungry years,” (Balyi; Bompa; Grasso) where players most easily learn new motor skills. Winning has its place, but learning is most important to children during this development phase.

Unfortunately, I valued winning meaningless games over my own kid’s development. The things he is being taught to do in college are the same things that [L.A. Rockfish’s Dave] Benezra was trying to get him to do, ahead of time, so he would be prepared as a college freshman and could move on to still other more advanced skills. The trophies? Oh, they still look good, although they are gathering dust in the garage. And the wins? It seems like nobody really remembers them (Anonymous father posting on Socalhoops.com).

As the athlete moves toward the Late Years, he needs a coach to enhance his performance and refine his skill level. Expert performers spend as much time involved with the activity as other players, but expert performers spend more time in deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires a well-defined task with an appropriate difficulty level for the particular individual, informative feedback and opportunities for repetition and correction of errors (Ericsson).

While today’s players practice more and more, this practice is less and less effective because the skills become autonomous – the player no longer thinks about what they are doing to execute the skill – at earlier ages, often with immature skills. Young players “master” skills at a junior high level, which proves successful in junior high school, but not so much in high school or college. However, without concentrating on the skill performance, they cannot alter its execution. A 55% free throw shooter does not show marked improvement from shooting more free throws; this practice ingrains poor shooting mechanics. Instead, these athletes need repetitions and feedback aimed at improving a specific flaw. They need to go beyond their comfort level; they need to change.

The key challenge for an aspiring expert performer is to avoid the arrested development associated with automaticity. The developing expert performer actively counteracts the tendencies toward automaticity by deliberately constructing and seeking out training situations in which the set goal exceeds their current level of performance (Ericsson).

The rushed development process creates an early automaticity. Normal practice will not change his shooting mechanics. He needs deliberate practice with a skilled coach who can direct the player and offer feedback so he re-learns the proper shooting mechanics to shoot successfully at more competitive levels.

The expert performer expends the required energy and concentration to expand his skill level through deliberate practice. He is also able to find and work with a coach who provides adequate feedback to ensure efficient learning and improvement. Proper development requires patience. Players in this phase require a coach who can take their game to the next level and utilize their skills in a competitive system.


Last month, I spoke to a high school coach who lamented one of his player’s academic difficulties. The girl fell too far behind early in high school, and despite interest from colleges, needs junior college to meet college admission standards. Naturally, the coach echoed a common refrain: tough family life, no parental support, no guidance, single mother, poverty, etc.

Parents make a huge difference in a child’s success. I followed a team from 7th grade to college. As 12-year-olds, this group was among the nation’s best; of the eight players, three play Division I athletics: two play basketball and one soccer. One quit during her junior year of high school, one played through high school, one dropped out of high school, one stopped playing in high school and one plays at a junior college. Ironically, the least talented 12-year-old is the most successful college performer (Atlantic 10 Conference), and the one considered to be the best plays soccer.

Two things stick out about this group. The three Division I players played multiple sports during high school. The others played only basketball. Secondly, these three had the strongest parental support. Their parents were around, but not overly intrusive. They attended games, but did not berate officials or the coaches. They supported their daughters, but did not make excuses. The others lacked the support, had family problems or had overbearing parents who made everyone’s business their own.

Balance, perspective and parental support made a difference in their lives and their successful pursuit of a college education and athletic scholarship. Maybe these three were the most naturally gifted, the toughest mentally or the most determined. Maybe they were lucky to have parents who cared and a stable home environment.

With myriad reasons to explain success and failure, pinpointing just one factor is impossible. However, I suspect the stable home environment and the parental support created an environment which led to success, and I do not believe the influence of parents, positively or negatively, can be overstated.

The path to talent development illustrates the importance of long term athlete development. Those who eventually develop into expert performers possess a happy confluence of genes, environment, support, values, opportunity and work ethic. The path to talent development illustrates the importance of a competitive outlet for blossoming expert performers to train and enhance their skills through more competitive play and deliberate practice with competent coaches.

Cross Over, 3rd Edition front CoverCross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development incorporates physiological and psychological phases to propose one model for development and to encourage parents, coaches and league administrators to demand a better product which benefits children of all ages and abilities, not just the elite. The new system should give every child the opportunity to maximize his potential, not set up a survival of the fittest, childhood-long scholarship quest. The goal is a better journey, not to sacrifice the journey for the destination. Basketball is not merely a scholarship pursuit, a career or a season-long quest for a championship. It has the potential to be a microcosm of life:

Each time a father takes his son or daughter to the playground to shoot baskets for the first time, a new world opens — one full of values that can shape a lifetime. In my experience, the feeling of getting better came with hard work, and getting better made victory easier. Winning was fun, but so was the struggle to improve. That was one of the lessons you learned from the game: Basketball was a clear example of virtue rewarded.

– Bill Bradley, Values of the Game

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →