Learning like the YouTube Man

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports

Athletes from Kenya regularly win Olympic medals. Kenyans are known for distance running, winning events at the 2016 Olympics from the 800m to the marathon. Medaling in the javelin, however, is unexpected, but Julius Yego followed up a 2015 World Championship with a 2016 Olympic silver medal. 

Affectionately known as the “YouTube Man”, Yego learned to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos. In 5 years, he progressed from a novice to a world champion. Through trial and error and self-discovery learning, he reached the Africa Championships and 2012 Olympics. He was self-taught and did not have a coach because, as he said in an interview, everyone in Kenya is a runner. Once he reached the Olympics, he found a coach who helped him transition from elite to world champion, and his winning throw at the 2015 World Championships was the best throw in the world in over 14 years.

The Internet has changed the manner in which children learn sports skills. When I walked into the office of a sports development club near Jinja, Uganda, considered one of the poorest towns in Africa, the children crowded around a small laptop watching videos of skill development coaches ripped from YouTube. They accessed moves and drills that I never saw as a player developing pre-YouTube. 

The Internet has benefitted not only athletes in Africa who may lack access to specialist coaches, but athletes in the United States. This spring, I met a young woman who earned a basketball scholarship who had learned her post moves by watching YouTube because she was from a small town and lacked access to quality coaches. Similarly, I worked with an NCAA Division II 2-sport athlete who earned All-American honors in the javelin who said that her primary coach was YouTube. 

In his 2007 TED talk, Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University, described his “hole in the wall” experiments. He dug a hole in the wall in the slums of New Delhi and put an Internet-enabled computer into the wall and a video recorder to record what happened. Children who had no previous exposure to computers managed to learn to use a computer and teach other children. He demonstrated that children can teach themselves, much as Yego taught himself to throw the javelin. 

This self-discovery learning runs counter to the assumptions of many. Rather than give freedom to children to explore and learn through trial and error, parents are more likely to hire a private coach to instruct their child in the perfect technique. Professional athletes have private coaches, and even the “YouTube Man” needed a coach to become a world champion, so we expedite this process by hiring coaches for children at younger and younger ages. If a personal coach is important for a professional or elite athlete, imagine the benefits for an inexperienced child!

Some may imagine the possibilities for Yego had he been coached earlier in his development. The Guardian wrote about Yego’s winning throw at the 2015 World Championships: “It’s ungainly. Unorthodox. And my goodness it’s worth it, the spear flying way past the 90-meter mark! It’s a throw of 92.72, a season’s best!” A throw that is unorthodox and ungainly probably would have been changed by a coach at an earlier age, but that described the best throw in the world in the last 14 years. Did Yego need a coach at an earlier age to perfect his technique? 

Psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” Maybe Yego won the world championships because of the manner in which he learned to throw the javelin, not in spite of his lack of coaching. 

Similarly, a recent study of adolescent soccer players found that those who improved more between the ages of 11 and 13 accumulated more non-organized soccer play and organized training in other sports, but not more organized soccer practice. In a retrospective study, highly skilled adult volleyball players highlighted the value of their involvement in unstructured activities with older peers and recognized the importance for achievement. 

These results and examples appear counterintuitive to a generation that has transitioned childhood toward structured activities, but when we consider the traits and commonalities of expert performers, the need for self-discovery learning should be understood. 

In a series of papers that studied different avenues of life, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has shown that grit predicts success. Grit was defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. How does one develop this perseverance and passion?

Passion for sport and music were linked to feelings of autonomy. Factors as simple as allowing a child to choose when to practice as opposed to a parent forcing the child to practice influenced the feelings of autonomy. Typically, when a child engages in unstructured or non-organized sports or self-discovery learning, the child chooses this activity without external pressure. The child has the autonomy to pursue these activities, and consequently, engaging in these activities may increase the passion that they feel. 

Duckworth divided perseverance into perseverance with the lower case ‘p’, which is working daily to get better at something, and Perseverance with an upper case ‘P’, which is continuing in the face of adversity. Psychologist Christopher Bergland suggested changing one’s mindset to view struggle and perseverance as a path to pleasure. Of course, when a child chooses to play in an unstructured activity, such as pickup soccer, the experience is rewarding and fun, but is also a daily effort to improve. It does not take a lot of effort to persevere when one chooses to engage in the activity, and the activity is inherently fun. 

Training for Perseverance is more difficult because the adversity that one must overcome to become an elite performer often is unexpected, whether a player overcomes being cut from a team, losing a parent at a young age, a single-parent household, a major injury, or other circumstance. There is no preparation for an athlete suffering her first ACL rupture and missing an entire season or for being cut from a team. 

The ability to cope with adversity with autonomy created self-reliant and resilient athletes and separated the experts and super champions from their peers.19 Allowing children the freedom to play and learn through trial and error may be one way to create these adaptive behaviors. When children engage in free play, they solve problems beyond those within the game, as they are the referees, the team-makers, the rule creators, and more. If one faces small doses of adversity frequently in low impact environments, such as unstructured play, one may develop more resiliency for more serious situations. 

For Julius Yego, learning to throw a javelin without a coach likely was difficult. Watching videos provided only so much information, especially for a technical sport and without the benefits of a high-speed camera and/or super-slow motion footage. Many people would give up or never attempt to learn to throw the javelin in those circumstances. Through trial and error, he faced frequent adversity in low-impact situations. Because he had no coach, he problem solved. He devised solutions. He developed his autonomy and resilience. Because he chose the javelin, rather than following everyone else in Kenya into distance running, he was invested personally. He developed passion for the javelin. Ultimately, this combination of passion and perseverance developed his grit, and his grit, his learning, his practice, and his athleticism led him to sufficient success to attract an expert coach who could assist with his development from elite to world champion. 

Yego’s experience contrasts with that of many children who have private coaches and organized lessons and parental expectations that take away their autonomy and prevent the development of passion and resilience. The children become dependent on the lesson time and the coach, and they lack the internal qualities required to develop and sustain success over a period of years. 

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