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. 

Multi-Sport Participation in High School

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Ohio State University won the 2015 NCAA Football National Championship, and 42 of its 47 players recruited by Head Coach Urban Meyer played multiple sports in high school. The 2015 Super Bowl featured the Seattle Seahawks with 49 players who played multiple sports in high school on its 53-man roster playing the New England Patriots with 47 multi-sport athletes. Twenty-year-old Nick Krygios qualified for the 2015 Australian Open Quarterfinals several years after representing Australia in age-group basketball competitions.

Parents and youth coaches dismiss these anecdotes because these players could afford to play multiple sports because they were more athletic or more talented than their peers. The evidence suggests otherwise. Neither Super Bowl team featured a player who was considered a 5-star recruit in high school; the starting lineups combined for four 4-star recruits and 40 players who were considered 3-star recruits or lower. Seattle’s starting lineup averaged 2.4 stars, led by quarterback Russell Wilson who was considered a better baseball prospect, and New England’s starting lineup averaged 2.3 stars. Very few of the Super Bowl participants were considered elite talents in high school, and many elite 5-star prospects never made the NFL. The elites at 17 and 18 years old are not the elites at 21 years old and beyond. 

Rather than the more talented and more athletic being able to play multiple sports athletes, the research suggests that these players are more athletic and more talented as adults because they played multiple sports as adolescents. Athletes who participate in multiple sports and specialize later have more success as adults.

The rush to specialize fits the 10,000-hour narrative that was popularized in the last decade and used by coaches to convince parents of the necessity of single-sport participation. The local AAU basketball programs in southern California told parents of recreation players that their children had to play year-round at 8 years old or they would be left behind and never make a high-school team. 

The 10,000-hour rule is a myth: 28% of elite Australian athletes reached elite status within 4 years of taking up the sport for the first time, rather than the required 10 years. Soccer players spent between 2700 hours (Barcelona) and 4700 hours (AJ Auxerre, France) in practice from u8 through u19, less than half of the mythical 10,000 hours.

Rene Wormhoudt, currently the strength & conditioning coach for the Netherlands Football Federation, devised the Athletic Skills Model to create a sequence of development where the child becomes a good mover; the good mover becomes an athlete; and the athlete becomes a specialist. At the Ajax Academy, players compete in soccer and practice for 4400 hours up to u19s, but the academy introduces other sports, and the players engage in multilateral training. They participate in badminton, dodgeball, gymnastics, and judo. Badminton develops footwork and hand-eye coordination. Dodgeball incorporates split vision, hand-eye coordination, and collaboration. Judo develops strength, trust, control, and overcoming fear. These activities accompany the soccer training and add variation, which creates a better learning environment. 

Wormhoudt noted that the club had not lost any players to other sports, but suggested that good movers could excel at other sports such as tennis, basketball, and field hockey because they require athleticism and movement skills as precursors to specialized skill development. This talent transfer has been used to develop elite talents in other sports in many countries, notably Olympic sprinters turned bobsledders Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. Talent transfer based on innate abilities and ability developed through playing other sports can accelerate the acquisition of expert performance.13 The sports with the highest transfer to elite performance in another sport were sprinting, basketball, and soccer. 

In total, 48.4% of talent transfers occurred between the ages of 16 and 21, which could indicate an ideal time frame to change sports. When women’s rowing exploded as an NCAA scholarship sport, many new programs recruited basketball players and offered them the opportunity to transfer their athleticism and size. I coached an average high-school basketball player who became an elite college rower. This age window represents the time when many athletes quit sports, either because they are cut from a high-school varsity team or because they complete their high-school careers and are not recruited to play collegiately. Rather than end their competitive careers, these athletes could transition to other opportunities if they develop a solid base of movement skills and athleticism, not just specialized sport skills. When lacrosse was new to the west coast, an NCAA D1 university recruited a friend to be among their first players because he was a very good high-school soccer and baseball player, and the lacrosse coach felt this combination would enable him to transition to lacrosse, extending his competitive career for an additional 4 years. 

Children become good movers, then athletes, then specialists, as Wormhoudt suggested. Multi-sport participation enhances this progression because of the variation in movements and movement skills, as well as various psychosocial benefits, such as soccer players facing their fears in judo. The NCAA National Champions and Super Bowl participants were not able to play multiple sports because they were more talented and more athletic; they became more athletic and more talented when they reached adulthood because they played multiple sports. Nobody remembers the 5-star quarterbacks ranked ahead of Wilson when he graduated from high school, but everyone knows the Super-Bowl winning quarterback. As many have said: You can be elite early, or you can be elite late, but not both. Specializing prior to adolescence to be elite in a sport in adulthood has the opposite effect; the best players are the best athletes who are the best movers, and they develop these skills through multilateral sports participation. 

Play is Learning

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.16 and Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 7.

There are two distinct voices within coaching and literature. On one end of the spectrum, there is deliberate practice. On the other end of the spectrum, there is play. On Twitter, professor Dave Collins wrote: “Play on its own is important, but surely so too is learning.” This is a problem. Play is learning; it may not be sufficient to reach an expert performance, and the best learning environments support play and build upon the learning that occurs through play, but there is no denying that learning occurs through play. 

For generations, we learned through play. At TED, evolutionary anthropologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo said: “Play is not just child’s games…play is foundational for building relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity: diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, and diversity of connections. When you watch bonobo play, you are seeing the evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance, and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.”

The last few decades have reduced opportunities for play in a rush to promote more serious and structured activities that supposedly promote success. During those same decades, rates of attention deficit disorder and similar disorders (Nyarko et al., 2017), obesity (Cunningham et al., 2014), and depression and other mental illnesses (Olfson et al., 2014) have increased. Correlation does not equal causation, but there is evidence that exercise improves behavior and academic performance in those diagnosed with ADHD (Pontifex et al., 2013), reduces symptoms of depression (Barclay et al., 2014), and fights obesity. 

Play is a significant contributor to a child’s cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development (Blasi et al., 2002). Play is essential for healthy brain development, increases physical activity levels in children, develops social and decision-making skills, and enables exploration and discovery of interests (Ginsburg, 2007). “Play is very much an activity of the mind….Engagement in play involves the mind in an active process as a child investigates, explores, and inquires during play” (Blasi et al., 2002). 

Traditionally, the learning process for almost any skill started with play. I played basketball for years before I was coached. I and my friends developed numerous skills through our recess games. By the time that we had a coach, we could dribble, shoot, pass, make layups, and more. We knew the basic concepts. We had not perfected these skills, and some were better than others, but we had developed a good foundation. More importantly, we were motivated. We tried out for the school team of our own volition, whereas my parents signed me up for soccer when I was young. 

I never played soccer or touched a soccer ball before my first organized practice. Everything I learned about soccer was through an organized practice or drill. I enjoyed soccer, and over the years I improved, but not in the same way that I loved basketball or improved in basketball. After eight years of organized soccer, my skills were rudimentary; the coaching, exposure to the game, lack of individual practice, lack of pickup games, and more influenced the differences between my development in basketball and soccer, but the initial entry into the sports is at least partially responsible for the differences. I started basketball through play and it was natural for me to search for pickup games or to practice on my own; I started soccer in an organized environment with a schedule of practices and games, and it was less evident for me to practice on my own or search for pickup games. My interest and motivation for basketball was greater, and consequently, I improved more, developed better skills, practiced more, and played the game better. 

Development is multifactorial, but the initial activities certainly set up a different path in each sport, and the outcomes were somewhat predictable, at least to someone who values play. For someone who believes that play is frivolous or unimportant, the outcomes are surprising or attributable to other factors, such as total hours of engagement. The greater exposure to basketball is a factor, and likely the greatest factor, but it is influenced by the initial opportunities to play and find my passion for the game on my own. I chose basketball; I never chose soccer or baseball, and despite more years of organized practices and games, my skills in baseball and soccer were never as advanced as they were in basketball. 

Ericsson et al. (1993) wrote that conditions for optimal learning required: (1) Motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve performance; (2) the task to take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners; (3) immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results; and (4) repeatedly performing the same or similar tasks. Deliberate practice, then, is effortful, designed specifically to improve performance, requires immediate feedback, and is repetitive (Ericsson et al., 1993).

To a large degree, the first condition is a prerequisite for the following three, but it is the condition that is ignored most often. Ericsson wrote that one must have passion for the activity before engaging in deliberate practice; this is mentioned rarely when discussing his work, but may be the most important point. When a player lacks motivation, the repetitions, carefully designed practices, and feedback will not amount to much. As an example, when I contemplate a major change to a player’s shooting technique, my first consideration is the player’s motivation; will the player invest the time, effort, and concentration required to stabilize the change? If not, why bother? Essentially, I am asking if the player has the motivation to engage in deliberate practice.

Whereas deliberate practice is essential in a situation such as changing a player’s shooting technique, play includes three of the four conditions of optimal learning, at least within sport (and this is an issue with transferring Ericsson’s work to sports, as his research was on chess and violin, which differ from sports such as basketball). 

In play, there is motivation to continue; in fact, that is a key identifier of play. Play can involve great effort; when I played pickup games, my play was at least as effortful as a typical practice. In a sport such as basketball, there is immediate knowledge of results regardless of a coach’s presence. When I shoot, and I miss the shot, I know this immediately. This is knowledge of results. The only condition that play fails to meet is repetitiveness, as play involves repetition without repetition (Bernstein, 1967). Rather than repeating the same task identically, play involves numerous different attempts at a task; when I was young, and I shot in my front yard, I imagined different situations or playing against different defensive players; when I played pickup games, the different defenders forced new moves or shots. I may have performed 20 or 100 repetitions, but none was the same. 

Deliberate practice must be structured to improve specific aspects of performance. Mastering a specific piece of music for violin differs from playing basketball. Basketball is changing constantly and evolving; it is more like jazz, as David Thorpe titled his new book, than a symphony. Varying the repetitions through play may be more akin to deliberate practice than removing and isolating a skill, which is typically how we view deliberate practice. The pop science-y books have led to increased isolated training and early specialization, but these changes have negative repercussions. Early specialization and repetitive movements have been shown to lead to increased injury in athletes (Read et al., 2016); chess players do not lose a season due to carpal tunnel from moving the chess pieces too often at too young of an age. 

Ericsson and colleagues (1993) addressed play and described the differences between play and his definition of deliberate practice: “In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable (Ericsson et al., 1993). Not all learning occurs in this method. I have trained numerous players who enjoyed working out; in these sessions, the activities were structured, coach-led, specifically designed by a coach, and had a goal of improved performance. Because they enjoyed them, does it fail to meet Ericsson’s definition? Do we have to hate what we do in order to learn? I don’t believe so. 

The voices on the deliberate practice spectrum tend to describe play as frivolous. It may be fun or have social benefits, but it does not improve skill. I hear basketball coaches who say that practices should not be fun. Why not? Basketball is play. That does not mean that one cannot do drills or that fun has to be the most important goal of every second of practice, but why should avoiding fun purposely be a goal at all? 

If play is learning, skill improves through play. In a study of German national team soccer players, the national team players compared to amateurs engaged in more non-organized leisure football in childhood, more other sports in adolescence, later specialization, and more organized football only after age 22 (Hornig et al., 2016). They played more and specialized later. In Australian Rules Football, the total number of hours in invasion-game activities differentiated expert and non-expert decision makers, suggesting that it is the involvement in the activities, not their designated purposes, that differentiated the experts (Berry et al., 2008).

When I was young, I skied. I was not skiing to join a ski team. I skied for fun. It was play. The more often that I skied, the better I became. I challenged myself on harder and harder runs. When I fell, I had immediate knowledge of results that I did something wrong. I initiated the activity; I picked the runs. Despite the inherent fun, a full day of skiing, especially as I got older and went after moguls, was effortful. In a sense, the optimal conditions for learning described by Ericsson were present in my skiing, despite the absence of coaching and performance-related goals. It would be crazy to suggest that I did not learn as I progressed from the bunny slopes to black diamond runs with moguls. 

Deliberate practice is not wrong; drills are not wrong. Practice does not always have to be fun, and the goal is not necessarily to maximize fun. However, learning occurs through play. Fun is not bad. Drills are not the only way to learn. Play is not necessarily easy; play can be effortful. Often, play is more effortful because the enjoyment and inner drive to continue leads to more hours spent on the task.

Rather than looking at the clock every 10 minutes until a workout is finished, one plays until he or she decides it is enough or until the gym closes, which is when I left the gym during my high school years. I showed up just before the games started to get into the first game, and I left when they kicked us out of the gym. Nobody forced me. I played for fun, but I learned as much or more in these Sunday night pickup games against older players as I did in all of my practices and camps combined.

Play is learning, and many of our problems, whether societal or within sports, are due to our increasing dismissal of unstructured play as unimportant or frivolous. 


Barclay, T.H., Richards, S., Schoffstall, J., Magnuson, C., McPhee, C., Price, J., Aita, S., Anderson, A., Johnson, D., & Price, J. (2014). A pilot study on the effects of exercise on depression symptoms using levels of neurotransmitters and EEG as markers. European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 1(1), 30-35.

Bernstein, N.A. (1967). The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Pergamon Press; Oxford.

Berry, J., Abernethy, B., & Côté, J. (2008). The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 685-708.

Blasi, M., Hurwitz, S.C., & Hurwitz, S.C. (2002). For parents particularly: To be successful — Let them play!. Childhood Education, 79(2), 101-102.

Cunningham, S.A., Kramer, M.R., & Narayan, K.V. (2014). Incidence of childhood obesity in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 370(5), 403-411.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363-406.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Güllich, A. (2016). Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(1), 96-105.

Nyarko, K.A., Grosse, S.D., Danielson, M.L., Holbrook, J.R., Visser, S.N., & Shapira, S.K. (2017). Treated prevalence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder increased from 2009 to 2015 among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

Olfson, M., Blanco, C., Wang, S., Laje, G., & Correll, C. U. (2014). National trends in the mental health care of children, adolescents, and adults by office-based physicians. JAMA psychiatry, 71(1), 81-90.

Pontifex, M. B., Saliba, B. J., Raine, L. B., Picchietti, D. L., & Hillman, C. H. (2013). Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Journal of pediatrics, 162(3), 543-551.

Read, P. J., Oliver, J. L., De Ste Croix, M. B., Myer, G. D., & Lloyd, R. S. (2016). The scientific foundations and associated injury risks of early soccer specialisation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(24), 2295-2302.

Coach Education, Coaching Clinics, and Development

Every so often, a Twitter storm erupts about the need for mandatory coach education. There is a belief that coach education will solve every ill in basketball in the U.S.

U.S. Soccer requires coaching licenses at various levels, including the Development Academy. Their coach education programs are further along than USA Basketball’s, but every complaint about youth basketball coaches can be found in youth soccer, even with licensed coaches.

Last week, I refereed an u14 Development Academy game for one of the better DA programs in the region, if not the country. The “coach” of this program:

  • Refused to listen to the referee and leave the field to be ready to kick off at game time.
  • Complained about previous games when admonished for not being ready at kick off.
  • Continued to ignore the referee as he attempted to give last minute tactical instructions, after the game was supposed to have begun, and when his team did not know the lineup.
  • Refused to stay in his technical area (coaching box).
  • Complained about virtually every call.

Thus far, the description suggests a disorganized coach and maybe a bad attitude, but nothing about his actual coaching acumen. Many good coaches complain about referee decisions, almost every soccer coach ignores the technical area, and rarely are soccer teams ready to play at game time. As a referee, his behaviors were annoying, and unprofessional, but not uncommon.

Can coach education remedy these behaviors? Are his behaviors due to a lack of knowledge? Was he unaware of the kick-off time or the location of his technical area? I doubt it. These behaviors are indicative of his personality, I believe, and coach education certificates or licenses will not change a coach’s personality.

More problematic was his behavior toward his own players. He spent 80 minutes ridiculing and criticizing his own team. He continually used sarcasm to mock his own players. He screamed at his right midfielder, the player closest to the bench, for the entire 27 minutes that he played before substituting for him. Prior to the substitute, he told the player not to kick the ball, just to defend, after the player mis-timed a pass. At half-time, with a 2-0 lead, he whined and complained at his team.

His vastly superior team surrendered three second-half goals, all of which he blamed on me of course.

Coach education is not a panacea for all issues in youth sports. This coach had to obtain a license from U.S. Soccer, yet he embodied every possible negative in youth coaching:

  • He set a poor example for his young players with his dissent toward the referees before, during and after the game.
  • His primary feedback was negative and probably abusive toward some players.
  • He cared only about the outcome (based on his behaviors and feedback).
  • He attempted to control his players at every moment through constant feedback and instruction: playstation coaching.
  • He embarrassed his own players publicly (early substitution and yelling criticisms).
  • He demeaned the opposition (to his players in their pregame and halftime huddles).

How good or influential is a license and the coach education that it represents when these behaviors continue with a licensed coach? What does the license mean? Do we have any standards or ability to evaluate coaches when he has a paid position with a DA club and a coaching license? Are we that desperate for anyone with content knowledge that we are willing to overlook the behaviors and the poor coaching practices?

After the game, I asked about the curriculum’s content to complete the license that he possesses and did not receive much information. It appears that the focus is technical and tactical. A coach education program that does not focus on how to coach will have little impact. Do the tactics matter when the coach is a playstation coach? Does any technical wizardry matter in such a negative learning environment?

I spoke at a USA Basketball coaching clinic last year, and that was my question, from a coach education standpoint. The majority of speakers, as with most basketball clinics, spoke about progression of drills, offensive plays, defensive systems, etc. To my knowledge, coaching and pedagogy received little attention: How and when to give feedback; how to create a good learning environment; how to motivate; how to develop the right mindset in players; the effect of demonstrations; and more. Clinics tend to focus on what to do, and we leave the how and why up for interpretation. We expect adults to behave correctly and with the best interests of their players, but do not address these standards.

The coach in question was particularly disturbing to me because the DA is set up to develop players. How can a player develop in that environment? Rather than attempt to control every action and criticize every mistake, here is Pep Guardiola talking about young players:

There is a huge disconnect between Guardiola’s words and the coach’s actions, but this coach is not an outlier. The previous week, I refereed a local youth tournament. This tournament had specific rules that coaches were to sit on the bench unless they stood to give a brief tactical instruction. At half-time, I asked a coach to sit down. He argued that he was in his technical area. I explained the rules. He said that he was giving tactical instructions. I replied that yelling “That was a terrible pass” or “Stop doing that” at an 11-year-old is not a tactical instruction. He complained further and I told him to feel free to speak to the tournament organizer who was about 20 yards away. Instead, he sat down, stopped yelling at his players, and his team played better in the second half and won.

Somehow, we have an idea that coaching means constantly telling players what to do, and silence means that the coach is not doing anything. We have the idea that a coach standing and pacing is coaching, but one sitting down does not care enough about winning. I hear these comments from parents at high school games, and have seen coaching hiring/firing decisions based on these perceptions of coaching.

Players have been indoctrinated into these behaviors. I had a player who had never played on a basketball team, but was forced to play varsity basketball because the school only had 6 girls come out for the team, tell me that I needed to yell at the team more and that would make the team win. I asked her if she tried her best. She said yes. I asked her if she played hard. She said yes. I asked her what she wanted me to yell about. I asked her if she wanted me to yell at her because opponents were bigger and better and had played basketball for longer. She said, “Yeah, you’re right coach.” Why would I yell at a girl who had the guts to come out for a high school basketball team and who never lost her enthusiasm as her team was blown out repeatedly? Because other players are better than her? Is yelling and ridiculing her somehow going to improve her jump shot?

Unfortunately, that is often the expectations that we have for coaches, and a reason that nobody questions this DA coach. After all, he has a license. He probably was a good player. Of course he is a good coach, that is why a top club hired him.

Now, maybe I caught him on a bad day. Who knows? The larger point is that he is not too different than a vast majority of youth coaches. This, of course, is why people believe that we need more coach education; we ned to educate these coaches. Does it work? He has a license. At least on this day, it did not work. Despite his license, he embodied the worst of youth coaching.

Rather than emphasizing coach education, we should emphasize finding the right type of person to coach children. Once we find the right people, educate, develop, and mentor these people. Our emphasis should be coach development, not coach education. We should focus on the why and how more than the what. The what is easy to find on YouTube; there are drills for everything, plays to beat any type of defense, etc. But, how to instruct? How to demonstrate? How to give feedback? How to respond to a mistake? Why use a specific drill? Why stop the action to speak? This is the knowledge that we tend to leave up to experience to accrue, which is why we have wildly different impressions on the proper way to coach. These questions are far more important than answering whether we should do a three-man weave or run the Flex or a three-out motion offense.

The Via Negative approach to talent development

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Fall 2017.

My earliest sports memory is playing the Cosmos, another team from my soccer club in a downpour on a field that would make Tough Mudder competitors proud during my first season of youth soccer then I was in kindergarten. I played for a club linked to my Catholic elementary school and church, and the Cosmos were my schoolmates. We lost the coin flip, I suppose, because we played in white undershirts, and the Cosmos wore our usual green jerseys. By game’s end, we were caked in mud. It was so much fun. Slide tackling was like sliding on a slip-and-slide. Nobody cared who won, although we were classmates and rivals. For the players, it was a blast that our parents allowed us to play in a huge rain storm on a muddy field, and, even more surprisingly, that the school allowed the game.

We play sports, especially at the youth level. Unfortunately, rather than an environment that fosters play and healthy competition, as with my game, today’s youth sports grow more serious every year with national championships, televised games, and reality television shows. Youth sport is a billion-dollar industry, and those in the industry seem unwilling to allow chance or fate to play a role in developing the future superstars. Instead, children are organized into specialized training as soon as they move beyond the basic locomotor skills. Rather than encouraging an environment of play and inclusion, we rush to identify the talented and expend resources on these precocious phenomenons with little regard for the physical development of the others.

Mladen Jovanovic, a sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach who has worked around the world, termed this the Via Positivia approach. As he wrote, “The general idea of talent identification is flawed: we try to identify the talented few early on and invest time and resources into them with the goal of developing sporting excellence.” Instead, Jovanovic suggested the Via Negativa approach: “Talent identification and development should work by (1) increasing participation and (2) reducing drop-outs.”

Jovanovic referred to Nassim Taleb’s concepts of upside and downside from Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. “Using the via Negativa approach, we mostly want to protect from the downside (reduced participation, dropouts and general low level of national fitness) and allow the upside to take care of itself (emerging talent of exceptional performance).” The via Negativa approach is the opposite of the direction in which youth sports is moving currently.

To adopt a via Negativa approach focused on increasing participation, reducing dropouts, and improving overall fitness, and allowing the talented few to emerge, our society and culture must re-embrace play. Play often is derided as unimportant or frivolous. Schools eliminate recess when time is required for more serious endeavors, despite research that has found physical activity to improve cognitive learning. Play is not something extra; play is vital to development.

The organizations most guilty of early identification of talent – professional soccer clubs and academies in Europe – embrace play because they understand its importance to learning and development. In Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies, Nesti and Sulley (2015) wrote, “All [the academies] were united in their belief that serious play was the best way to develop players for the future….They attempt to instill a culture of play. This informs all that they do and is part of the underlying performance philosophy….A psychology of play could be detected through practice and theory governing young players’ development in the sport. This was being used to help players acquire greater levels of resilience, inventiveness, courage, spontaneity, and spirit.”

The best soccer academies attempt to rekindle the best aspects of street soccer or unstructured learning environments. Despite the seriousness of their endeavor – producing elite soccer players for professional clubs and national teams – the top academies, such as F.C. Barcelona and Ajax Amsterdam, create a culture of play because these experiences are vital for the players’ learning.

In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown M.D. defined the six properties of play as: (1) Apparent purposelessness; (2) inherent attraction; (3) freedom from time; (4) diminished consciousness of self; (5) improvisational potential; and (6) continuation desire. Play, not deliberate practice, appears to provide the best pathway toward the development of creative, intelligent players.

To develop into a creative, intelligent player requires a desire to play and practice to accumulate experience and learning. Play encourages this effort because it is done for its own sake, rather than to attain an external goal. Too many players today practice only when they have an appointment with an individual trainer or a team practice. Greatness requires practice beyond the scheduled times, and play encourages this extra effort because it is fun. Nobody forces a child to play; it is natural and desirable.

Play is discounted because it is viewed as non-serious, and we associate skill and improvement with hard work, effort, and dedication, not fun. However, pickup games, unstructured environments, and play are rich with learning opportunities. “Play does not mean non-serious, easy, or comfortable activity. Neither is it seen as being about uncommitted behavior or lacking in drive and motivation. Instead, this key word, play, was used to explain the importance of small-sided games, individual learning, intrinsic motivation, and creativity,” (Nesti & Sulley, 2015). Children want to play; they want to possess the ball, learn new skills, and try out new moves. Play enhances our learning potential because we are fully in the moment and open to new things.

It is only as we get older that we lose this desire for play. As Steven Kotler wrote in The Rise of Superman, “Flow is a radical and alternative path to mastery only because we have decided that play—an activity fundamental to survival, tied to the greatest neurochemical rewards the brain can produce, and flat out necessary for achieving peak performance, creative brilliance, and overall life satisfaction—is a waste of time for adults. If we are hunting the highest version of ourselves, then we need to turn work into play and not the other way round.” Unfortunately, our overly-structured youth sports system appears to be shortening this time frame and turning play into work for children and adolescents.

When I played in the mud, nobody was concerned with identifying or selecting talent. There were no scouts to see our budding brilliance. We played because it was fun. Nobody from those teams played elite soccer, although the majority played recreationally for 10+ years because we enjoyed the sport. In the age group ahead of us and behind us, players from the same club playing in the same way with similar coaches and philosophies developed into college, professional, and Olympic athletes. The initial emphasis on play did not retard anyone’s development into an elite athlete, and it reduced dropouts from those who were never destined to be professional soccer players. The play embraced the via Negativa approach to talent development by increasing participation and allowing the talented few to emerge. That is the environment that we should strive to re-create in youth sports today, rather than the emphasis on anointing the talented as early as possible and ignoring the masses.

Making sense of generational arguments about skill development

I don’t understand the following argument:

“Players from previous generations had more skill.”


“Players from previous generations were three-sport athletes.”


“Players from previous generations played more pickup games.”


“Players need to specialize earlier and train privately with individual coaches to improve their skills.” Read more

Applying lessons from the tennis lab to the basketball court

Every singles tennis match is bound by the same dimensions…. yet each one is a laboratory for innovation, unrestrained by a risk-averse coach or the conflicting desires of teammates (Bialik, 2016).

Basketball often is compared to the improvisational nature of jazz, but it tends to be played more like a well-practiced orchestra with a conductor standing and controlling the action as much as possible. Innovation is more difficult when someone conducts your actions from the sideline, and deviation from the rehearsed plan often is met with disgust and a quick substitution rather than celebrated for its creativity, as it would be in jazz. Read more

The pool, post-game fun, and youth sports

Read more

Whose game is it anyway?

This weekend, I refereed three under-9 boys soccer games (6v6) in a local tournament. At one point, there was confusion between the tournament rules and normal rules, so I stopped the game briefly to clarify with a tournament director. After roughly 10 minutes, the tournament director returned and changed the rules again. 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

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