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. 

Looking back at the 2007 NBA Draft to discuss talent identification

I found an old blog entry from 2007 that discussed talent identification in the lead up to the 2007 NBA Draft.

That is Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tskitishvili. So far, so good.

Certainly missed on Conley, and everyone missed on Oden, but the other six remain in the NBA a dozen years later, which isn’t bad.

Not bad on Afflalo and Dudley (even nailed the Pistons drafting Afflalo!), although Young has had a great career, albeit not as a superstar.

In the lead up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I took issue with an article that described the NBA Draft as a crap shoot:

The NBA drafts players between 18 and 22 years of age. Despite youth coaches believing that they can identify talent in elementary school, these players are not finished products. Only the rare players enter the NBA as ready-made starters; almost every player has to improve to earn playing time and stay in the NBA. Therefore, when we look back after 2, 5, 12 years, some things appear obvious, but that is hindsight because we have learned more about the players in the subsequent years. Should we have known these things at the time of the draft? Sometimes, but not always.

I wrote this about Jeremy Lin during Linsanity:

What if this is really a story about a player who met failure at every step of the way with a Growth Mindset and responded with increased effort and determination to make himself into a better player? Poor Man’s Commish, the authority on the Jeremy Lin story, has commented several times about moves that he has now that he did not have at Harvard or about improvements to his shooting technique. Others have noted his improved quickness since his time at Harvard.

Maybe, just maybe, people made accurate evaluations of Lin at the time. Maybe Lin took note of those evaluations and viewed them as progress reports, not final grades. Maybe Lin heard about his suspect jump shot or need for more quickness and worked at those weaknesses.

The thing that differentiates Lin might not be his ethnicity or Ivy League degree but the way that he deals with criticism or rejection. Rather than losing hope when he went undrafted, maybe it fortified his will and determination and spurred extra effort in the gym. Maybe when he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets, it created an urgency to show more if given another chance.

Maybe Jeremy Lin is not the story of others who made mistakes, but an individual who believed in himself and created his opportunity through a re-dedication to perfecting his craft. While others settled with being pretty good, maybe he strove to be great. While others headed to Europe for a nice payday, maybe he maintained a single-minded focus on his NBA dream.

Maybe everyone was right all along. And, maybe, just maybe, Lin had the will and desire to hit the gym and prove them wrong by improving and stepping up his game at each step along the way. Maybe he persevered when most others would quit; maybe he did not allow others’ perceptions to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe he grew from these experiences which tend to stagnate growth in others.

Maybe the narrative should be about a kid who likes to ball who didn’t let other people tell him what he couldn’t do or achieve and who believed in himself enough to put in the work to make an absurd dream (non-scholarship to NBA) into a reality.

Similarly, it is easy to look back and believe that we should have known that Steph Curry should have been drafted higher, but what role does the environment and coaching play?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

In today’s NBA, nobody would draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but the NBA in 2019 differs from the game that was played in 2007. In 2006-07, Golden State led the NBA with 1967 three-point attempts; in 2018-19, the Spurs attempted the fewest three-pointers (2071), and Houston led the NBA with 3721 three-point attempts (stats from Basketball Reference). Similarly, Curry obviously should have been drafted higher, but it took him changing the geometry of the entire NBA to demonstrate that obviousness. He was drafted into a different NBA than the one in which he plays today.

At the time, maybe NBA GMs should have known more about Durant, Lin, and Curry. As I wrote in 2007, rather than following the adage that you cannot teach height, NBA teams should draft for the psychological skills and intangibles that predict success (competitiveness, focus, discipline) that author Marcus Buckingham argues are equally innate. If a team had identified Lin’s tenacity and grit and drafted him, would it have allowed more time for him to realize his potential?

For youth coaches and parents, there are three primary take aways:

  1. The game evolves. A player who thrives today may not have a role in a decade if he or she cannot evolve and improve. The ability to and willingness to learn and improve is as important as any skill, quality or talent.
  2. The psychological and mental skills ultimately trump the physical gifts. In any sport, there is a minimum physical threshold; a 5’8 male is going to have a very difficult time making the NBA, and a 7’0 male likely will be exposed on a soccer field. Once the minimum threshold is achieved, it is the psychological characteristics that will determine one’s success: Resiliency, grit, mindset, adaptability, work ethic, and more. If you plan to prepare your child for athletic greatness, focus on these skills and characteristics before worrying about his or her jump shot.
  3. The environment matters. Does the environment allow for the player to thrive, like Curry with Kerr or does the environment limit the player(s), like Curry under Marc Jackson? By focusing only on what a player cannot do, do we miss what the player can do? Is there a way to exploit the positives?

Yes, NBA GMs make mistakes. However, many mistakes are obvious in hindsight only because a player improved, the environment changed, the game evolved, or an injury occurred. Decisions are made with imperfect information, but to improve one’s odds, more emphasis should be placed on the psychological traits and the fit with a team’s environment (which, of course, is difficult when coaches change every 2-3 years, which is one reason that organizations such as the Spurs and New England Patriots have an advantage).

Grittier athletes more likely to succeed

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2016.

After the annual NCAA football signing day, NFL.com wrote that 57.3% of the 288 Rivals.com five-star prospects between 2002-11 went un-drafted by the NFL. Five-star prospects are the elite 18-year-old football players; NFL draft picks are the elite 21 or 22-year-old football players. Only 40% of those who are considered elite at 18 years old remain elite three to four years later, despite five-star prospects generally playing for more prominent football programs with more prominent coaches, bigger budgets, better facilities, and better competition, advantages that should widen the gap between the elite and non-elite rather than shrinking this gap. Read more

Playing time matters, but so does grit

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2015.

As the game clock dwindled toward zero, and his son remained on the bench, the father wondered about the best course of action. What was the point of a 10-year-old playing on a basketball team if he never played in the games? What happens to a child as he grows if his father is there to make everything okay?  Read more

Parenting through the youth sports experience

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2012.

Parents frequently ask me about pushing their child. They are unsure of the fine line between offering encouragement and opportunities and pushing an activity onto their child. When children begin organized athletics, the parent almost always makes the decision, as few five, six, or seven year-olds know what they want to do; at the same time, almost any kind of activity is interesting to a child at that age.  Read more

A Generation of Wimps: The Product of Overparenting

Over the last two seasons, as a rash of college players have transferred away from coaches with very good reputations (Mike Montgomery, Ben Howland, Roy Williams, etc.) despite receiving plenty of playing time (Gary Franklin from Cal, Jabari Brown from Oregon, etc.), people have searched for answers. What is wrong with this generation? What is wrong with the coaches? What are the parents teaching these young adults? Why is this happening? (Note: I am not against all transfers; I advised a player who I used to train to transfer. However, the rash of transfers, taken as a whole, seems to ask larger questions). Read more

Quit! You Might Improve

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2011.

I recently started jiujitsu. In the fall, I tried Pilates. Last year, I bought a paddleboard and started paddleboarding. The winter before that, I taught myself to swim. Before that, I tried boxing and kick boxing. I am, to use the description of George Leonard in Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, a Dabbler. I enjoy the newness of an activity. I enjoy learning. However, once the newness of an activity wears off, I move on. Once I reach an acceptable level of learning, which for me is far from mastery, I try something new.  Read more

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