Athletes Rushing to Sport-Specific Training Sacrifice Self-Taught Skills and Imagination

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

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The Internet’s interminable need for new and original content makes web sensations out of five-year-old Little Leaguers and eight-year-old basketball stars. This season, various sports sites, including Yahoo! Sports, promoted dribbling sensation Jaylin Fleming as the world’s greatest nine-year-old basketball player. Last year, 6th grader Jashaun Agosto had his 15 minutes of fame when a Seattle television station’s segment showing him making shot after shot went viral. Not to be outdone, Yahoo! Sports touted New Jersey’s Ariel Antigua as the best five-year-old baseball player ever!

These internet sensations are the outliers, not the norm. Those who appear destined for greatness at an early age rarely reach sustained excellence at a competitive level due to the many varied factors of professional success. For every O.J. Mayo identified in junior high school as a future superstar, there are dozens of Demetrius Walker’s, the former Sports Illustrated cover boy hailed as the next LeBron James in 2005, who recently transferred from Arizona State University to the University of New Mexico after averaging only four points per game in 23 games as a freshman.

Unfortunately, the outliers grab the headlines, distort our perceptions of the path to success and alter our approach to youth sports. Others gravitate to these stories and attempt to emulate their success. We rush the development process and ignore developmentally-appropriate play activities because another child developed a skill a few years earlier than normal, and a television station desperate for feel-good stories featured him in a segment that captivated the Internet.

Childhood is moving quickly from a time of exploration and discovery to a pre-professional training environment. Rather than encourage children to play on their own and engage in self-discovery, parents set appointments with pitching, goalie or shooting coaches to train their offspring so their child can keep pace with the perceived status quo.

Sports, in their most basic form, are a form of play. In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D. defines play as an activity possessing the following seven characteristics:

  1. Apparent purposelessness – play is done for its own sake
  2. Voluntary
  3. Inherent attraction – it’s fun
  4. Freedom from time – we lose a sense of the passage of time
  5. Diminished consciousness of self – we are fully in the moment; we stop worrying about looking awkward or stupid
  6. Improvisational potential – no one way to do things
  7. Continuation desire – pleasure of the experience drives a desire to continue

Developmentally, many view play as superfluous because it is fun, and therefore not serious practice. However, play offers the same learning experiences that drive the desire for more intense training. When I was young, I shot in my driveway for hours while engaged in self-initiated play. I was not training to be a professional player; I chose to play because I preferred playing outside to sitting at a piano and because shooting free throws cleared my mind.

Playing in my front yard or going to a neighborhood court for 3v3 games was fun. Hours flew by. I made up new moves or copied moves that I saw on television. If I dribbled the ball off my foot or airballed a shot, I chased down the ball and tried again and again until I mastered the move. I did not avoid mistakes but embraced them as challenges.

This play offers the same or better opportunities for skill development as more intense training sessions. In fact, a great trainer manages to engage many of the same characteristics as the child-initiated play. Regardless of the trainer’s knowledge, the child’s learning depends on his self-motivation and desire. If the child does not want to improve or does not value the lesson, he will not invest the time and effort required to learn something new. Play, however, is inherently fun.

Play differs from training because of its purposelessness. When a player moves from playing for the sake of playing to training for sports success, the motivation starts to change from fun to goal-oriented activities. In an athlete’s development, one naturally progresses from a period of play to more training-based activities. This progression is natural and gradual and occurs after a player has played a sport and developed an affinity for the sport and a desire to continue participation at more advanced levels.

The irony in the rush to eliminate these playful periods in favor of more specific training is that the prodigies’ initial skill development occurs through play, as the child explores different ways to manipulate the ball and engages in hours of self-initiated practice.

In 2001, I coached a nine-and-under team with amazing ball handling ability. At the AAU National Championships, we stayed at the same hotel as a 13-and-under team from Minneapolis. As our van pulled out of the hotel to get to one of our games, the players from Minneapolis were outside doing different ball handling drills and tricks. While idling in the driveway waiting for a coach, one of our players jumped out of the van, grabbed a ball and perfectly executed one of the moves that the other players struggled to perform.

Our players did not develop these skills through training-based activities. While we did ball handling drills, we did not do typical drills. One coach led the players through follow-the-leader type drills and incorporated different tricks out of streetball videos. However, these activities only enhanced the players’ motivation. Their development primarily occurred outside of practice.

After almost every practice, our top two ball handlers wasted time while their parents talked by going 1v1 in a hallway, trying to find ways to dribble past or through each other in a small, confined area. Nobody told these players to practice while their parents talked. Instead, they made their own games, and the games happened to enhance their skill development greatly. As they practiced, they did not have some higher goal; they simply wanted to have fun and one-up each other.

When we eliminate play at a young age, drills become tedious as the player loses his freedom, and he engages in more and more adult-initiated activities. Rather than trying new things and exploring different moves through play, players follow the coach’s instructions. Learning follows explicit instructions rather than through self-initiated exploration and imagination.

There is a time in the athletic development spectrum for training and specialized coaching. Unfortunately, more and more, parents seek this specialized training before their child plays the sport and develops the desire to train to be a better player.

By skipping these playful periods, players miss out on the self-discovery and exploration. They develop in an environment of extrinsic motivation and schedules, and an atmosphere of pleasing parents and coaches rather than playing for the sake of playing. They play in competitive environments at an earlier age where people focus on their performance and they worry more about how they look or perform as opposed to staying in the moment and engaging in an activity for the sake of playing. Often, this early training atmosphere leads young athletes to quit the sport at an early age because the sport loses its fun: the sport is no longer play.

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

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