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.

Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

Draft Express profile on Steph Curry showed real hurdles. (Getty via CBS Sports)

I found the above picture in a CBS Sports article after originally seeing the weaknesses described in a presentation by Ross Tucker (if you’re interested in talent ID, I highly recommend Tucker’s presentations).

Read more

  • 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 →