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, soccer coach and youth development expert 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 beliefs 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 school-based sports system that allowed millions to participate.

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. 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 into the other school. Assuming each graduating 8th grade class had 5-10 boys playing on its 8th grade basketball team, 75-150 boys who played on 8th grade 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 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 the 3rd and 4th grades while I was at the school, and eventually down to kindergarten. Roughly 10-15 boys per grade in k-8th playing basketball, and this is one school. None 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 to 15 was too much, so they added a second freshmen team, and eventually a second junior varsity team. One high school had roughly 75 players 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 held back the U.S. 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 have only one team for schools with 2500+ students, and many schools have no tryouts because fewer than 15 players turn out. 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 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 is attributed to early specialization and especially 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 specialization is a net positive, as the school’s best athlete plays one sport instead of three, which opens opportunities for two other students to play. 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 its success, and we’re undermining ourselves at every level by turning sports development into a 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:

I do not agree entirely with the above, as the statement is true only if the drafted players never improved or were injured, and if all environments, opportunities and coaches were identical. However, these issues affect the talent spotting of younger children, except these other factors are magnified at younger ages. If a 19 year-old is not a finished player, what is an 8-year-old?

When I have met with federations about talent development and identification, the initial goal is always to find the talented few earlier and pour more resources into them. My answer is the opposite: Find ways to increase participation and delay talent identification. My opposition is likely the reason that none has hired me, as 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 stymie the federation’s development, and none is 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 because it generates 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. We need to invest more money in elementary, junior high school and high school physical education and extracurricular sports, not reduce funding and cede development to private organizations. Schools provide a cost-effective opportunity for almost all children, which is not true of private organizations.

Otherwise, we create a system with no middle. In my area, there are virtually no players to recruit to a junior college with full scholarships. There are very good players who develop in sponsored clubs from 6th-12th grade and sign D1 and D2 scholarships, and there are many 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 cut in middle school from one of the few clubs. Creating more opportunities at younger ages increases the middle at the high school level, and makes for better and more competitive games, which only enhances the skills of the “elite”.

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. There were 15-20 girls per age group at the tryouts for the 6th-8th grade teams. Rather than keep everyone (2 teams per age group) or a full 12-15 per grade (36-45 total), the varsity coach told me that if he had his way, they would keep the 8 most talented players total from the three grades, cut everyone else, and focus on those 8 to develop into a championship high-school team in 4-6 years.

Beyond the obvious short-sightedness 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 this high-school did not have a soccer team, so she was likely to attend their rival high school, and the best 7th grader’s older sister was a star volleyball player, and if forced to choose, she was likely to play volleyball. They could have focused on 8 girls only to lose one to another school and another to volleyball and have 6 girls left from 3 grades despite 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 professionals 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? Create more and better opportunities to keep as many as possible involved for as long as possible. The school system provides the best opportunity.

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