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.

Youth sports: What has changed and what needs to be fixed?

Every day, I read another article that is critical of youth sports. Identifying the problems is easy, but few articles suggest real, practical solutions, and I am unsure whether the suggested solutions would make a practical difference and alleviate the problems.  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

Khan Academy as a Way to Change Athlete Development

There are four takeaways for me:

1. The knowledge map that he creates is essentially what we tried to do with the Train for Hoops program four years ago. Academics are suited for the program because you complete the assignments online and the computer program assesses your performance automatically and uses the algorithm to design the next assignment. In basketball, players had to track and input their own performance. As coaches and parents told me over and over, that is too much work for a player.

It is not ideal. However, it begs the question: if you’re not prepared to spend an extra 10 minutes writing down your performance during your workout and transcribing it to a computer online to generate a progressive workout program, how serious are you about your improvement? If you go through a workout without tracking your progress by any measure – whether video analysis, outcome totals, time – how do you know that you are improving? How do you know that your effort is leading somewhere?

2. “The paradigm is that once you get 10 in a row, it forwards you into more and more advanced modules.” Is that how we progress players? Khan calls this a “System of Mastery.” School is not like this. When you take a math class in school, you do Chapter 1, you do the homework and you take a test. You are evaluated on the test, which becomes your grade, and you move to chapter 2. This creates gaps in your knowledge. If you scored an 80% on the Chapter 1 test, that means you did not master 20% of the material. In most cases, the material builds, so you have a 20% hole in your foundation for chapter 2.

Youth sport is more like the traditional educational system. A child signs up for an u8 basketball team. His responsible coach teaches him the basic fundamentals. However, he does not master all the skills. The next season, he signs up for u9 with gaps in his skills that may or may not be corrected. If the u8 player never learns to jump stop properly, and the u9 coach assumes all the players know how to jump stop, the player may progress to u10s not knowing how to jump stop. He may not be called for travels every time in the games because the officials have a lot of leeway with u8s and u9s, so he and his parents may not even see the gaps in his development. At u10, all of a sudden, he doesn’t play much because he constantly gets called for traveling or because he’s terribly off-balance when he shoots. He gets discouraged and quits, and it stems from the lack of focus on skill mastery when he was 8. He moved to the next level because of age, not mastery, and he lacked the foundation to build skills. Some players progress on and on with a gap in their skill level or general fundamental movement skills until high school. A player may be fast enough to hide his inability to dribble with his left hand, a skill that should be mastered at a young age. Eventually, that gap in his skills will prevent him from progressing.

How can we create leagues that are based more on mastery of skills for promotion than age or size?

3. At around 11:20, he shows data from the Los Altos School District. “Over and over, five days in, there is a group that’s raced ahead and a group that’s fallen behind.” Once those children who have fallen behind get past the one concept, they race ahead. The implication is that classes are often grouped by a snapshot of ability; similarly, teams are picked based on a snapshot of ability. However, a player may be stuck on one concept or move, and once they master that move or concept, they race ahead. If they are cut because of that snapshot, they may never master that move or concept because they have been weeded out of the competitive stream, and they likely quit.

4. When he shows the data of the Los Altos School District, he says about the green color (children who are proficient in a concept) and the red color (children who are struggling with a concept), “Even better, let me get one of the green kids to intervene and be the first line of attack and tutor their peer.” What a great way to enhance both students’ learning while also keeping the students at somewhat of a similar level! Teaching the concept to a peer will enhance the student’s understanding and retention of the material.

Similarly, reader Josh Littlejohn put his players in charge of the team for a game to see how they would react to a lack of a coach. It is an interesting example of an athlete-centered environment.

The Khan Academy illustrates a fundamental shift in the way that we organize the classroom. Is it possible that similar concepts can re-organize the sports development environment?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

Developing Successful Performers: Learning from Spain’s World Cup Victory

On another blog, I saw an interview with Seattle Sounders Strength & Conditioning Coach David Tenney. He has an interesting response when asked about soccer development in the United States:

I agree that soccer has developed to a good level in this country…However, there are still some real areas that we lag behind our South American and European competition. I think that if you look at the average high school age or college game, it’s an overly physical battle…The American game is about trying to play at a frantic speed for as long as possible. At times, it looks like uncontrolled chaos. When we start to get coaches that can slow the game down a bit, so players can think, then we will make progress.

Read more

Identifying Age or Potential

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2009.

My first organized sport was soccer. In kindergarten, I joined a soccer club sponsored by my church. My teammates were mostly 1st graders. With a late September birthday, I started school late, so I was older for my class. However, youth soccer had a January 1 cut-off date, so I played with the children in the grade ahead of me.

I felt that I had an advantage playing with the older kids. I played on a good team and was an average player. Initially, I played the midfield, usually on the right side, but I fought to play as a central midfielder. I liked to control the action and cover the whole field as I could run all day.

Ken, a friend in my class, played competitive/club soccer. He tried out and made the big club team in our area and traveled to tournaments throughout the west coast. At school, our soccer skills and athleticism were even. However, he had a February birthday, so while I played in the u-12s, he made an under-10 team. We were even at recess, but our competition away from school differed because of our birthdays.

When Ken joined the competitive team, we were basically equal. However, after several years of competitive soccer, he was a better player. While I played soccer from August – November, he played year-round, and he played against better competition. He had soccer coaches, while we had parent volunteers coaching our team.

When we got to high school, Ken made the high school team while I did not try-out – the best player from my team did not make the high school team during the previous year, so I did not think that I had a chance. Every player who made the high school team played competitive youth soccer, except the back-up goalie who looked around on the first day of try-outs, decided he was not good enough as a field player and tried out as the only goalie in the freshmen class.

As one of the oldest kids in my class, I had the advantage of age and physical maturity during elementary school. In basketball, a sport which I played with school teams, I was one of the taller players, so I had an advantage. However, in soccer, I was on the wrong side, as I played on teams with kids who were eight or nine months older, so I was an average player, not a candidate for a club/competitive team.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study by a Canadian psychologist which found that “in any elite group of Canadian hockey players, 40 percent of the players will have been born in January, February and March.” Canada uses a January 1 cut-off date for junior hockey. Coaches identify talent at young ages and shepherd the talented players onto the elite teams.

When coaches looked at me playing with my soccer team, I did not stand out. My friend, however, was bigger, faster and stronger than most of the kids that he played against. Even though our recess games were even, his size and speed helped him make a competitive team. The coach did not identify talent, but the advantages of birth. With a February birth date, he was older than most of the other players who tried out, and at 10-years-old, a five to six month age advantage can be a big deal. When coaches choose the select or all-star teams, “they are more likely to view as talented the bigger and more coordinated players who have the benefit of critical extra months of maturity,” (Gladwell).

Even on my recreation team, the best players had birthdays in January and February. The better players also played forward, goalie and sweeper. The worst players played outside fullback or outside midfield. This happens in every sport: the best baseball players pitch and play shortstop, while the worst plays right field; in basketball, the best player plays point guard and the worst player plays post. Unfortunately, when coaches distinguish the best and the worst, they distinguish the older and the more coordinated, not the most talented or those with the most potential.

In the beginning, the differences are small. Ken and I were similar as 10 and 11-year-olds. On my team, the forwards were basically the same as the midfielders and fullbacks; they were a little faster and a little bigger. However, as the inherent age advantages decreased, the differences on the pitch were more pronounced. Barnsley [the Canadian psychologist] argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming and differentiated experience.

If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented;” and if you provide the “talented” with superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to the small group of people born closest to the cut-off date (Gladwell).

Because Ken made the competitive team, he had access to better coaching, more practice and better competition. Over several years, these advantages helped him develop his skills far more than I did with my recreational team. Even though I was older,  his competitive experience gave him a greater advantage.

We have a poor understanding of the road to success or excellence, and without a better understanding, our ability to evaluate and identify talent diminishes. When ranking players, choosing teams or identifying prospects, we need to look deeper than size, speed and strength, as those characteristics tend to balance as players continue to develop and all the players go through puberty. What we see as talent at an early age is often not talent, but age. Rather than choose and develop the older players, we need a system by which we identify true talents or we need to wait to identify “talent” and differentiate training until the advantages of maturity disappear.

When we identify talent at an early age and then provide the talented with a better training experience, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which sociologist Robert Merton defines as a situation where “a false definition, in the beginning…evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” At 10-years-old, Ken was not more talented. By making the team and going through years of better training, he became a better player. Rather than credit the different experience which developed him into a better player, we credit his natural talent.

Because I was an average soccer player, but a pretty good basketball player, I spent more time playing and practicing my basketball skills, while Ken trained for soccer. I chose the sport where I had an age advantage, while he chose the sport where he had the age advantage. Neither of us made a conscious choice to pursue an activity where we were given a slight advantage; instead, we gravitated to the sports where we found early success, even though we played both sports until high school.

As a society, we believe that if you have ability, the vast network of scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you (Gladwell). However, as Barnsley’s study illustrates, those born in the last half of the year have all been discouraged, or overlooked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half of the athletic population has been squandered (Gladwell).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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