Elite Athletes Build Broad-Based Foundations

by on October 9, 2012
in Talent Development

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2012.

While in Paris, I marveled at the subway system. In the United States, as cities on the west coast attempt to develop subway systems, local governments are caught in a network dilemma: A network improves as more people join the network, but local governments cannot justify the expense to expand without more users. In Paris, subway lines crisscross the city: There was no place that was not easily accessible through the subway and a short walk. This is a mature network; as more people use a particular line, more trains are added, and the line improves in quality and speed. In Los Angeles, the problem with the subway is that the lines do not crisscross the city: Plenty of locations are completely inaccessible by the subway. Due to the inaccessibility, fewer people use the subway; however, to build the additional lines, there has to be a demand: It’s a catch-22. 

Athletic development is similar. While we view sports skills as physical skills and associate them with the muscular system (i.e. muscle memory), skills develop in the brain through the neural networks. Practice strengthens the connections. The more one practices along a specific pathway, the more that the pathway improves in speed and quality, like a subway system adding more trains to a line to meet the demand of additional users. The success of the subway line is due in part to the improved speed and quality of individual lines, but also the number of potential connections. Similarly, while practice improves a specific pathway, athletic development requires a broad network.

In Developing Sport Expertise (2008), Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas outline the Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP). Their research has found that “athletes who had been involved in diversified sporting activities during childhood required less sport-specific training during adolescence and young adulthood to achieve elite status in their sport” (p. 19). Developing a broader foundation leads to a quicker progression to elite performance after puberty compared to those with a narrow foundation of early specialization.

Strength coach Dan John, the author of Easy Strength, uses a simple four quadrant graph to explain the different types of training. In Quadrant 1, the emphasis is on a broad range of movements. Traditionally, Q1 was elementary-school physical education. Q1 is the foundation. On the other end of the spectrum, Q4 is specialized and very narrow, like training for a specific event like the 100m. Team sports fall into Q2 or Q3, as athletes need more generalized training than a 100m sprinter, but more specific training than elementary-school P.E.

The DMSP emphasizes Q1. Think of a subway line: The more tracks that are laid, the more potential there is for people to ride the subway. If the subway line only runs from point A to point B, people living at points C,D, and E are unlikely to use the subway. Therefore, the subway’s efficiency does not improve and the city cannot justify investing in more tracks. The subway becomes a mode of transportation for one specific area and one group of people. If the subway crisscrosses a city, and every location within the city is accessible through the subway and a short walk, more people can use the subway. The lines that attract more riders get more trains, more connections, and faster service. Using the lines strengthens the line, while those lines with less ridership are weakened and maybe eliminated.

Expert performers are specialists – they strengthen a few specific pathways, improving the speed and quality of a narrow network. Kobe Bryant works out six to eight hours per day in the off-season concentrating on his strength and explosiveness and making 700 to 1000 shots per day. This is Kobe Bryant as a professional athlete. If we use Bryant the professional athlete as a model for developing a youth basketball player, we miss his developmental years when he played soccer as a youth while living in Italy. Early in Bryant’s development, he created a broad neural network through participation and practice in multiple activities. This broad development increased his motor and athletic development and created a foundation to strengthen specific pathways later in life.

While we acknowledge that very few children who participate in sports will evolve into elite performers, we attempt to learn from the elite and transfer their lessons to children who may or may not aspire to that level of performance. When attempting to transfer the lessons of the elite performer to young children for performance purposes, mistakes are made. Reaching an elite level of performance often requires an unhealthy obsession and lifestyle – the athlete must be preoccupied with performance. John says that being elite is not healthy. We attempt to take the lessons of the elite performer once he or she has reached elite performance rather than learning from the lessons of the elite performer’s childhood. Television cameras capture the specific workouts of the elite, but ignore the more general play of the elite performer’s childhood.

Regardless of one’s aspirations, children need a strong foundation in Q1. Q1 creates the framework of the mature network with many available pathways. If one skips Q1 and moves directly into sport-specific training, focusing on strengthening a narrow network, the athlete will develop with holes; to use the subway example, there will be areas that are inaccessible because of the narrow network.

When I train basketball players who have never played baseball or softball or a similar sport that requires extensive tracking of a ball, their tracking skills are underdeveloped. Their hand-eye coordination is underdeveloped. While they may appear to have mastered a sport-specific skill like shooting a basketball, they may struggle with a simple drill like catching a tennis ball while dribbling a basketball. While this skill may not affect their basketball game directly, the fumbled pass or the inaccurate pass during a game could be a result of the poor tracking skills, not poor sport-specific passing skills.

While in Paris, I attended the French Open. I am astounded by the non-tennis skills that players show in between points. Players like Rafa Nadal expertly juggle a tennis ball with their feet. One player deftly caught a served ball on his racket like he had a glove on his hand. Other players smoothly deflected errant serves traveling 120+ MPH behind their backs directly to a ball boy. None of these actions directly affects one’s performance on the court, but these abilities certainly demonstrate deeper, general skills that form a foundation for elite serves, backhands, and forehands. Spending hours juggling a soccer ball or a tennis ball may not seem like a path to tennis stardom, but developing those pathways creates a deeper and more powerful neural network. It’s no coincidence that players like Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and David Ferrer are the ones who often juggle the tennis ball with their feet, and are known for their tremendous footwork, while someone like Andy Roddick with less renowned footwork is rarely if ever seen juggling a tennis ball with his feet.

Whether we dream of elite performance or well-rounded goodness, every athlete needs a broad foundation at the start of his or her athletic career. Elite performers in any sport are specialists – they narrow their practice to master a few specific pathways. Rather than continuing to support a mature network, they are concerned with the speed and quality of a few specific pathways. However, the deep and varied network is there. It is the foundation.

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

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