Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, July/August 2015.
During their high-school years, I trained two brothers. They were bright and athletic. When I first met them when they were in middle school, they mentioned a desire to play basketball at Stanford University in the future. Despite their similarities, they differed. Everything appeared to be easy for the older brother, whereas the younger brother tended to work harder. The older brother had varied interests, whereas the young brother focused more on basketball. The older brother was regarded as the better player almost until the day that he quit competitive basketball, but it was the younger brother who set records at his university and played professionally. The older brother, when he chose to quit basketball, pursued his other interests in music and found success. Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2014.
When the recess bell rings, young children run around, playing tag, hopscotch, kickball, or hanging on the monkey bars. Chip Conrad, owner of Bodytribe Fitness, wrote, “Recess is strength, mobility and creativity in action, in demand, in flux.” During these recess games, children learn to move through interactions with other children, the environment, and different tasks. They develop movement literacy. When they play tag, children run, cut, juke, evade, skip, hop, jump, lean, fake, and more in an effort to avoid being tagged or to tag another child. Nobody has to teach these children how to perform these movements. The playground is the teacher, and their learning is bound only by their imagination and willingness to experiment. Read the rest of this entry »
Kobe Bryant ignited a great deal of discussion about basketball development in the United States. I only wish that he had made those statements in 2006 when I first published Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development. Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published in Los Angeles Sports and Fitness, May/June 2013.
As a seventh grader dribbled around his back and attacked the basket during a middle school championship game, the parents commented to each other about the quality of play. One mother explained that several players played on a year-round competitive team in addition to their school team. The year-round play likely helped their team win the game and the championship. Their skills were a little more advanced than their opponent; they made some free throws, and they made better decisions in 2v1 fast breaks. Of course, they also may have won because one player had more facial hair than I had when I graduated from high school or because they had the tallest, most coordinated player on the court. They also may have been lucky, as this was the first time in two seasons and four games that they had won against this opponent. Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2011.
A recent article from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports titled “Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports” concluded that athletes who specialized later (mid to late teens) fared better than those who specialized in a sport at an earlier age. In truth, the study focused more on training volume, than specialization. Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Summer 2010.
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:
- Apparent purposelessness – play is done for its own sake
- Inherent attraction – it’s fun
- Freedom from time – we lose a sense of the passage of time
- Diminished consciousness of self – we are fully in the moment; we stop worrying about looking awkward or stupid
- Improvisational potential – no one way to do things
- 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
Note: Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May 2008
We generally do not allow sports science to interfere with our deeply held beliefs, even when the beliefs are more myth than reality. When I coached in Ireland, the young Irish players believed that basketball greatness was not in their genes. They felt that Irishmen were not meant to be great athletes. Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Team crushed its opponents in its preparation for the 2007 World Cup. While basketball and rugby require different skills, each features fast, quick, agile, strong and coordinated athletes. If Ireland develops world-class rugby talent with these qualities, why do Irish basketball players believe this development is beyond their gene pool?
Few people view rugby and basketball in terms of athletic qualities, so few see the similarities, which impedes our overall athletic development.
Because we view sports in sport-specific terms, coaches encourage early specialization. Some basketball coaches dislike players who play volleyball, as they feel the players fall behind their teammates. However, volleyball and basketball require lateral movement, hand-eye coordination, ball skills and vertical jumping. Blocking a ball transfers to contesting a shot, and moving laterally for a dig transfers to moving laterally to prevent an offensive player’s penetration.
As youth sports grow more competitive, more young athletes rush to specialize. They heed their coach’s advice or follow their parents’ guidance, as parents try to give their child an advantage over the competition.
Early specialization – when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty – leads to immediate sport-specific skill improvements. Coaches and parents see immediate results and follow this path. If the most skilled 10-year-old plays basketball year-round, maybe my son or daughter needs to devote 12 months a year to basketball.
However, athletic development is a process, and sport-specific skill development is only one piece. Before one can be a great player, he must be an athlete, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development. Unfortunately, as with the Irish players, we view sports based on sport-specific skills, not athletic qualities.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of athletic training facilities. While these facilities play to parent’s big league dreams, their success is developing general athletic skills which athletes fail to develop naturally because they specialize and narrow their athletic development. Rather than play multiple sports, which train multiple skills, athletes specialize in one sport and use performance training to compensate for their narrow athletic development.
Kids used to develop these athletic skills by playing multiple sports and neighborhood games, like tag, which develops agility, balance, coordination, evading skills, body control and more.
Now, rather than play tag, children go to facilities and do agility drills so they can change directions, fake, evade and cut when they play basketball, soccer or football.
Athletic development is a process, and early specialization attempts to speed the process. However, what is the goal? Is the goal to dominate as a 10-year-old?
Early specialization leads to early peaks. Players improve their sport-specific skills more rapidly than those who participate in a wide range of activities. However, those who develop deeper and broader athletic skills have a better foundation when they ultimately specialize. While those who specialized early hit a plateau, the others improve as they dedicate more time to enhancing their sport-specific skill.
If one specializes in basketball at 10-years-old, his general athletic development is incomplete. While he likely improves his dribbling, shooting and understanding of the game more rapidly than his peers who play multiple sports, those who play multiple sports develop many other athletic skills. If the others play soccer, they improve their vision, agility, footwork and more; if they play football, they improve acceleration and power. When these athletes specialize in basketball at 15-years-old, they have broader athletic skills and an advantage against the player who specialized early and hit a plateau in his skill development.
Skills – from athletic to tactical to perceptual – transfer from sport to sport. Many coaches and parents insist there is no relation between sports, which gives more credence to early specialization. However, before one excels at a sport, he or she must be an athlete first. The more developed a player’s general athletic skills, the higher the player’s ceiling in his or her chosen sport.
Sports science research contends that specialization before puberty is wholly unnecessary and, in some cases, detrimental to an athlete’s long term success. If the goal is to dominate other 10-year-olds, specialize early. However, if the goal is to nurture healthy children and give them an opportunity to participate in high school and/or college athletics, playing multiple sports offers a child more developmentally than does early specialization.
By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Note: Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness in May 2010.
Childhood has moved from a time of exploration to a time of preparation, and youth sports epitomize that transition. Playing sports has changed to training for a sport for even young children. Mike Boyle, a well-known strength & conditioning coach in Massachusetts, recently wrote about a question that he received from a parent-coach of a nine-year-old hockey team looking to put together a summer plan. Boyle’s first suggestion was to play another sport.
Young athletes progress through three general stages in their athletic careers: Sampling (6 -12-years-old), Specializing (13-15) and Investment (16+). The sampling period is a time to play multiple sports and develop a wide base of athletic skills before choosing a sport to pursue. The specializing period is a transition between the more playful sampling period and the more intense investment period. The young athlete participates in fewer sports during this period, but practices and plays more often in his or her chosen sports. The investment period is when the athlete hones his or her skills for competitive play and trains to be a hockey player, soccer player or basketball player.
As more attention focuses on the practice hours required to reach an expert level, more parents and coaches skip the sampling stage and move directly to specializing and investment in an effort to speed the developmental process. However, rushing the process does not lead to more elite players. The sampling period is not a waste of time or easily ignored. This playful period plays an important role in an athlete’s development, regardless of his or her ultimate sport of choice.
The sampling period is a time to play, not train. As players engage in different sports, they develop different athletic qualities and add to their athletic toolbox. Rather than train these qualities in drills and training, playing multiple sports makes the athletic development more fun and gives the young athlete a chance to choose his desired sport from among several options.
Boyle suggested that youth hockey players play lacrosse because of the tactical similarities between the two games. All invasion sports (lacrosse, basketball, soccer, hockey, water polo, etc) use the same basic tactics in terms of spacing, movement and passing. Rather than spend the spring and summer in ice rinks playing more games and practicing more hockey-specific skills, lacrosse enhances the players’ development by broadening their athletic skills. Rather than burning out on year-round hockey, players continue their development by learning new skills and training in a different sport.
Boyle’s second suggestion is to skip all but one week of summer hockey camp and to pick one with the largest number of friends attending. Summer sports camps are more social than developmental. As Boyle says, “You won’t get better in a week anyway.” Sports camps are effective if they motivate players to work hard after they leave the camp and if they teach things in a way that players can use what they learned on their own. However, learning and improvement do not occur during the time frame of the camp. The camp’s developmental impact occurs long after the camp ends. Therefore, as Boyle suggests, attend a summer camp for fun and to play with friends.
Boyle’s third suggestion is to cancel any summer leagues. The off-season is a time for training, not competing, and nine-years-old is too young to concentrate on training for a late specialization sport like hockey, basketball, soccer or baseball. Since nine-year-olds do not need to train for their chosen sport, they should use this time for more sampling, not specializing. Rather than play in a hockey league, play lacrosse. Rather than play year-round baseball, join a swim team. Rather than play year-round basketball, take martial arts classes. Do something new. Provide experiences that enable the young athlete to develop broader and better athletic skills.
Older athletes in the specializing and investment periods use the off-season to train their skills and prepare for the next season. They add new moves and skills to their repertoire and improve their strength, fitness, flexibility and quickness. Nine-year-olds do not need to train for youth sports. They need to play.
Boyle’s other suggestions are to engage in more family activities like bike riding and fishing. Plenty of families base their schedules around their children’s youth sports schedules and ignore family activities. Missing one tournament or skipping a practice is not going to set back your son’s or daughter’s athletic career, regardless of how disappointed the coach may be that a player would skip a game or practice. Holidays have become a time for youth sports tournaments, which dominate nearly every weekend as well. At some point, these tournaments have diminishing returns and a weekend spent bicycling at the beach or snowboarding in the mountains is more valuable.
Rather than heeding Boyle’s advice and spending an athlete’s early years developing varied athletic skills, parents and coaches encourage year-round training. Rather than allow for a period of play, youth sports have turned into a time for training.
I recently spoke to a Boys & Girls Club about its middle school basketball program, as the athletic director was hiring coaches for its spring season. In the meeting, he spoke about “competition,” “cutting players” and “winning.” I left the meeting feeling that something was wrong. If middle school sports at a Boys & Girls Club are that cutthroat, where can a recreational player play for fun? I expected an environment of inclusion and development, not a results-oriented, exclusionary team. He spoke effusively of a player who played in the club as an 8th grader and earned a Division I scholarship, and he said that was the goal. Is the B&GC’s mission really to produce Division I athletes? What happened to fun? What happened to teaching life lessons like discipline, responsibility, work ethic, accountability and more?
A local youth organization is hosting an exposure weekend for young basketball players as young as 4th grade to determine invitations for summer national all-american camps. Do young athletes need an all-american camp? Do they need a national ranking? I train a player who was an All-Freshmen pick in his conference this year, and he was never ranked in the top 500 players in his class during high school. There is no benefit to being a nationally ranked player as a 4th grader, except the neighborhood bragging rights. Have we reached the point where youth sports participation is measured entirely by one’s rank or ultimate success in the sport rather than the fun that one has and the friends that one makes while playing the sport?
Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.
This summer, Chula Vista Little League won the Little League World Series, and the biography for winning pitcher Kiko Garcia said that he also played club soccer and basketball.
In the semi-finals of the United States’ bracket, Chula Vista defeated Warner Robins Little League from Georgia; ESPN showed the Warner Robins players preparing for their game by practicing their football plays, as football season had started in Georgia.
Throughout the tournament, ESPN’s baseball analysts praised the players’ fundamentals – especially the slick fielding of the San Antonio team and the professional hitting approach of Chula Vista – yet these players play multiple sports.
Many parents, however, rush their child into one sport. In youth basketball, many parents and coaches believe that players must specialize early just to make a high school team. However, most research contradicts these beliefs, and most sports scientists and doctors disagree with early specialization, which is playing one sport year-round to the exclusion of others at an early age, typically before the onset of puberty.
The arguments in favor of early specialization are:
- To give less naturally talented players an advantage to catch up to their peers.
- To develop better sport-specific skills.
- To concentrate solely on one activity in an effort to excel.
- To create a competitive advantage against those who do not play year-round.
Typically, those favoring early specialization are the competitive coaches or year-round programs that profit from children playing year-round competitive soccer or joining a year-round competitive swim team or taking year-round tennis lessons in a junior program. They convince parents that the only way to reach an elite level is through specializing and dedicating more time and energy (and consequently money).
Recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers brought the idea of the 10,000-hour rule or the 10-year rule into the public forum. Based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, the 10,000-hour, 10-year rule states that it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert in any discipline, whether playing tennis, playing chess or writing novels. Some have used this research to justify or support early specialization.
A subsequent book, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, supports the idea of practice, not natural talent, as the recipe for expert performance. However, Coyle adds another element of Ericsson’s research: Ericsson writes that people should choose something that they love, as that is the only way that they will invest enough time and energy to become an expert.
Rather than push children to specialize early, Coyle writes that children need to engage in activities and choose their own pursuit. He calls this the ignition and suggests that this is as important as the deliberate practice which follows.
Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas call the ignition period deliberate play. In Developing Sport Expertise, Cote and Fraser-Thomas introduce a three-phase development plan: sampling, specializing and investment. During the sampling years (ages 6-12), children should play many sports rather than training to excel in any one sport (some sports, like competitive gymnastics, differ because they require an early peak, as most elite gymnasts are in their middle to late teens due to the body issues associated with elite gymnastics).
They argue 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,” (Farrow, et al).
Essentially, Cote and Fraser-Thomas believe that the hours of play in different sports count toward the 10,000 hours. Therefore, one does not need to spend 10,000 hours playing only basketball, soccer or tennis, but the athlete can spread his initial hours amongst numerous sports to develop different motor and cognitive skills which ultimately make for a better overall athlete when the athlete chooses to specialize in his or her teens.
If researchers conclude that late specialization leads to better future performance, why do coaches argue in favor of early specialization?
Most people see the technical or sport-specific skills of a sport. For instance, basketball coaches see shooting skills and soccer coaches see dribbling or passing skills and volleyball coaches see setting skills. Coaches spend hours teaching these technical skills so players master the specifics of the proper shooting or setting form. Coaches who have a natural bias toward their sport and to the importance of performing these skills correctly believe that proper skill execution separates the expert performers from the non-expert performers.
In many sports, however, technical skill execution is not the deciding factor for expert performance. In basketball, few players fail to make the next level because of sub-par shooting; in fact, rarely does the best college shooter get drafted. More often, the players who fail to move from Division I basketball to the NBA lack an athletic skill like quickness or a cognitive-perception skill like making the right decision when leading a fast break. Because coaches typically see the technical skills, they fail to see the transfer of these athletic and cognitive-perception skills between sports.
Eddie Jones, an Australian rugby coach, says, “I can clearly pick out those players who have played a variety of sports growing up relative to those who have predominantly specialized in rugby. A key difference is that those who have played lots of sports are usually more tactically astute,” (Farrow, et al).
I watched several former clients play in club basketball tournaments this summer. Their teams hardly practiced, so they played mostly unstructured basketball and relied on individual players’ game understanding and reading of teammates.
As I watched one girl, I felt her soccer experience helped her on the basketball court versus her teammates who were basketball specialists. When she retreated in transition defense in 3v2 or 2v1 situations, the opponent rarely scored. She did not do anything noticeably different, but when she was back, the opponent committed silly turnovers or took bad angles to the basket – it was easy to write off as bad offense, except it consistently occurred when one player was on defense, not with the others. When her teammates were back on defense, the other team made lay-ups and often scored three-point plays.
Later in the summer, I watched a college soccer practice and I saw virtually the same technique that my client used in basketball on display in transition defense in soccer. She did not even realize that she used her soccer lessons to enhance her basketball performance, but the concepts transferred and informed her play, which led to better decisions and better performance than players with more basketball experience.
In Developing Sport Expertise, Greg McFadden, the Australian Women’s Water Polo Head Coach, describes the two traditional paths to water polo: some players are competitive swimmers who transition to water polo late in their teens, while others play a team sport like rugby throughout the winter and play some water polo during the summer. “Generally, the players that played other team sports were more successful than those from a swimming background because they had an understanding of how to create space and where to pass, etc.” (Farrow, et al).
In McFadden’s perspective, playing rugby transfers to water polo success better than swimming experience. However, if you asked the average person about which sports are more similar – rugby and water polo or swimming and water polo – most people would pick water polo and swimming because they take place in the water and involve swimming.
In reality, swimming is primarily a motor skill sport while rugby and water polo are motor and cognitive skill sports. A motor skill sport is one where the quality of movement produced by the performer is the primary determinant of success, while a cognitive sport is one where the quality of the performer’s decisions regarding what to do determines success (Schmidt and Wrisberg). Swimming and water polo involve the same motor skill (swimming), while water polo and rugby involve similar cognitive skills in terms of spacing, passing, defense and other decisions.
In water polo, what factor separates the expert performer from the average player? Is it swimming skill or other skills like cognitive-perception skills, tactical understanding and more? If swimming skill separated the expert performers, wouldn’t Michael Phelps, Aaron Piersol and Ryan Lochte be the best water polo players in the world?
Swimming – the motor skill – is obviously an important skill in water polo just as running is important to soccer. However, running ability rarely distinguishes an expert soccer player from a non-expert, just as swimming skill is not the limiting factor for water polo players. Instead, it is often the “feel for the game” or the ability to make the right decisions which separate expert players.
An expert water polo player skillfully separates from his defender for a split-second to create space to receive a pass, turn and shoot; an expert soccer player anticipates the location of a driven ball and beats the defender to the spot to head the ball into goal.
While there appears to be zero similarity between a water polo player elevating above the water to catch, rotate his body and throw the ball into goal and a soccer player running to a ball kicked by a teammate and using his head to punch the ball into goal, the cognitive skills in terms of reading the defender, finding open space, reading a teammate’s intentions, understanding the positioning of the goalie, and more are virtually identical.
McFadden, Jones, Cote and others do not believe it is a coincidence when my client illustrates a deeper understanding of game awareness and decision-making skills based on her soccer experience more so than her basketball experience. To them, it is the same skill, just a different sport. Therefore, the arguments for early specialization which focus on enhanced skill development and better preparation fall short.
In fact, early specialization may inhibit optimal development rather than enhance development. For an aspiring basketball player, playing a similar invasion game like soccer, lacrosse or water polo has a positive effect on one’s ultimate basketball development because of the transfer of cognitive-perception skills.
By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League