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. 

The unpredictability of talent identification and development

Chris Devenski is a reliever for the Houston Astros. He has been one of the best relievers this season on the best team in baseball. Read more

The perfect grassroots talent development basketball system

As I pulled into a middle school to referee a soccer game between two local club teams, I saw an advertisement for the local recreation league that will sponsor teams in the fall. For a second, I thought of the gradual migration of new signups to the recreational league to the select few making the competitive club team, and the progression made sense. The better players moved to more competitive, year-round soccer, and the lesser players played a fall season of recreational soccer. Then I remember that I was refereeing 10-year-olds, and I questioned whether or not it was fair to make these determinations of talent at such a young age.  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

Should leagues mandate equal playing time for youth basketball?

When I coached junior varsity girls basketball and freshmen boys basketball, I committed to playing every player in every half of every game. Initially, the varsity coach instructed me to play everyone in every game with the JV team, but I continued to play everyone at the next school, even when I felt that the varsity coach disagreed with the egalitarian approach to playing time. To me, these are developmental levels, and playing everyone fits with a developmental model. Read more

Play, small-sided games, and talent development

Nearly every child starts basketball in a 5v5 league, and nearly every week, I watch or referee varsity high-school teams with players who lack basic skills. If insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, why are parents and coaches so opposed to starting youth basketball players in small-sided games rather than 5v5 leagues? Baseball players start with tee-ball, and soccer players start with 4v4, 5v5, or 7v7. Why are there so many objections to modifying basketball? 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

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

Ajax: A Model for Development?

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2010.

In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, Michael Sokolove wrote “How a Soccer Star is Made” in the New York Times about Ajax, a club team in Amsterdam famous for its Total Football style of play and the development of young soccer stars, including several who played for the Netherlands in South Africa. Despite its small size and population, the soccer world looks to the Netherlands, and specifically to Ajax, for its methods of developing youth soccer talent.

Despite its international success in numerous sports, the United States lacks a definitive development system. In most team sports, players bounce from recreation leagues to club teams to school teams with little to no coordination, progression or consistency between leagues, clubs, schools, teams and coaches.

In effect, the system creates a “survival of the fittest” process, as the biggest, strongest athletes receive more playing time and are selected for teams as children get older and the competitive stream narrows.

In Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I categorize four athlete types: Recreational, Developmental, Competitive and Elite. When I was young, children progressed through the first three types gradually and at one’s own pace.

I played on soccer and baseball teams when I was seven-years-old, but there was no performance pressure. These teams were about having fun and making new friends. Eventually I started to play basketball and quickly decided that I wanted to be a good player, so I practiced on my own and attended camps. I played on teams focused more on teaching fundamentals and preparing players to make high school teams than winning games.

When I reached high school, tryouts for teams grew very competitive, and those who made the team competed for league, area and state championships. The better players sought more developmental experiences to expand their games and their athleticism to prepare for college sports or professional careers.

Now, many children completely ignore the recreational and developmental steps, as teams quickly turn competitive. Youth teams focus on winning games and tournaments and play far more than they train. Youth teams often practice once or twice per week and play in weekend tournaments with three to five games.

The Ajax system largely skips the recreational step as well. Ajax uses scouts who scour the countryside for potential professional footballers as young as five-years-old. Those invited to the the academy enter into a prolonged developmental stage. “The boys are not overplayed…Through age 12, they train only three times per week and play one game on the weekend” (Sokolove).

The academy focuses on the process, not the results. The goal is to move players from the developmental programs quickly through a competitive period in their late teens and on to the elite (professional) level at a young age (late teens/early twenties).

Youth sport is a billion-dollar business in the United States, and the entrepreneurialism affects the environment in which youth players develop. Likewise, the Ajax academy is very much a business, and its approach to business influences its approach to youth development.

In the U.S., a youth athlete is a commodity. Coaches, instructors, facilities, leagues and clubs profit immediately from participation and increase revenue by increasing quantities. More tournaments with more teams and more players per team mean more revenue for the businessmen (coaches/tournament operators).

Ajax treats youth athletes like an investment or asset, and it profits by maximizing the asset’s talent and selling the asset to a bigger, richer club as the asset matures. Wesley Sneijder, the star of the Dutch National team and Serie A (Italy’s top league) champion Inter Milan, started with Ajax when he was seven, and Real Madrid bought his contract for 27 million euros when he was 23.

The different business approaches create different positives and negatives. For a player entering the Ajax system, he receives professional coaching throughout his childhood and every possible resource to maximize his talent. Ajax’s style of play “demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizard-like ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.”

Rather than engage in common drills, “training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line-up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range…these exercises [are] designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball.”

While teams in the U.S. compete to win games, even at the youngest ages, the Ajax academy is more concerned with developing players. Once the players develop their individual technical and tactical skills and move to higher levels of competitions, Ajax cares more about the results. However, at the young ages, the process of developing the player supersedes any result.

U.S. teams often pigeon-hole players into positions and concentrate solely on position-specific skills. Rather than concentrate on important skills like field vision and a player’s first touch, fullbacks are taught to boot the ball out of trouble and midfielders send low-percentage through balls to strikers whose role is to shoot on goal. Teams concentrate on winning the next game, not developing skills for the long term.

Most differently, a child selected to train at Ajax incurs no fees except a nominal insurance charge. The academy pays for its professional staff as an investment – the business’s research and development budget. In the U.S., players pay to play, and more competitive teams or clubs with better coaching typically cost more than local or recreational leagues.

The negative side of Ajax’s investment is that when it becomes apparent that a player lacks the requisite talent or skill to develop into a professional player, the academy dismisses him.

These players, and there are many as only so many players reach the professional side each season, suffer emotionally and socially. One unnamed youth player said, “My best friend left [was cut] two years ago…I don’t speak to him anymore. He thought that I was not in touch enough, that I was not supporting him. He was furious. I realized he was just a football friend and that you can’t have real friends at Ajax” (Sokolove).

While the U.S. system may not provide the professional coaching like a European club’s academy, many youth players develop life-long friends through youth sports. My best friends are guys who I played against in middle school who became my high school teammates.

Our coaches were parent volunteers and while they may not have been baseball, soccer or basketball experts, they insured a safe environment where we had fun and made friends (several friends did earn college scholarships or play professionally).

Beyond the social aspects are academic and other non-soccer pursuits. Another player said, “I would feel very bad if I’m not one of them [professional player]. I have tried everything I can do to make it. I haven’t done as much in school as I could. I would feel like I’ve been wasting my time all these years. I would get very depressed” (Sokolove).

Many youths in the States pursue college or professional careers and manage to excel academically and in other pursuits. When their competitive careers end, they transfer the athletic lessons like determination or work ethic to new pursuits in academia, coaching, business, parenting and other areas of their lives. When asked if he might have learned something at Ajax which would benefit him in a non-football life, this boy answered, “No. We’re training for football, not for anything else.”

Unfortunately, youth development in the U.S. appears to be adopting some of the negative consequences of the Ajax’s academy without incorporating the positives. While many coaches remain volunteers and the progression between age groups, leagues and teams remains disjointed, more and more youth athletes feel a pressure to reach a certain goal – usually a college scholarship – to feel like their athletic endeavors had a purpose. Without the scholarship, they feel they wasted their time.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the Sawyer Effect: practices that can either turn play into work or turn work into play. Many children no longer play sports; they train or work at sports, even from a young age. When this work fails to result in the end-goal or a pay-off for the effort, they feel like a failure. They do not remember the fun of playing a game, learning new things or challenging oneself. Instead, they view the time spent pursuing an unrealized goal as time lost.

There is a fine line between the benefits of a professional development system like Ajax and the ruination of children’s games and play for the sake of playing. While a more balanced approach to training and competition and better organized practices may enhance a child’s experience and his talent development, is it worth the possibility that he views sports as work rather than play? Is it so bad if some players squander some of their athletic talent because they pursue multiple sports or act in plays or start a band?

Should the business of youth sports cater to the development of professional athletes or promote healthy living and life-long activity? I certainly advocate for changes to the way that we develop youth athletes in the United States, but part of the change must be a return to play for the sake of playing.

“Recreational” should not be viewed as a bad word or a dumbed-down program for the uncompetitive. Young athletes need a healthy progression from recreational to developmental to competitive to elite (if good enough) based on their own interests and motivations. Playing sports should be fun, not work, and nobody should view their youth sports experience as time wasted regardless of the outcome.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Overtraining Against the Law?

A friend sent me a link to this article about a custody hearing involving a “Little League Dad.”

The father of two Long Island junior tennis prospects has been stripped of custody by a New York state judge who found their rigorous training schedule to be “overly burdensome, exhausting and completely unacceptable.”

The Cavallero brothers — Giancarlo, 10, and Jordy, 5 — were required to leave school early to spend six hours a day at tennis practice and play tournaments on the weekends.

But in a ruling last week, Acting Supreme Court Justice Norman St. George of Nassau County found the “grueling” training regimen had left the children “constantly tired, regularly late to school … and their tennis appears to be negatively impacted.”

On the other hand, I saw this video on Yahoo! Sports of MMA fighter Jens Pulver’s son Karson.

Look at the form on his squats! Sometimes, the early start is fun and games and encouraging an active lifestyle. However, sometimes dreams and ambitions lead to a loss of perspective. Sometimes, it is a fine line to walk between pushing too much and starting too early and just letting a child have fun.

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