The unpredictability of talent identification and development

May 12th, 2017

Chris Devenski is a reliever for the Houston Astros. He has been one of the best relievers this season on the best team in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »

LTAD, LeBron James and Team Handball

August 11th, 2016

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Problems with talent identification

March 14th, 2016

More and more, youth basketball moves from an environment of talent development to an environment of talent identification and selection. Many coaches who used to engage in development with young players have left the sport because they invest years into a player and watch the player and his or her parents leave their home program (school/AAU) for another program because of exposure, free shoes, or whatever. Inevitably, the original coach reads about how this new program that coached or trained the player for 1-2 years was responsible for their development. Why spend time and effort developing players for little to no money or recognition when you can poach the already talented player and reap financial benefits and recognition?  Read the rest of this entry »

Tryouts for AAU, high school, or provincial basketball teams

March 1st, 2016

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Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

February 17th, 2016

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Recruiting and the Development of Tall Players

February 22nd, 2013

I spent this week watching the girls’ basketball state play-offs with an eye on evaluating players for the junior college where I work as a strength coach in the event that the basketball coaches ask for a second opinion. In debating the merits of various post players for a junior-college program, I returned to a persistent question that is relevant to coaches of all ages: Is the goal to win now or to develop players for long-term success? Here is how the question plays out: Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth of the Talented Basketball Player

March 16th, 2012

There is a gross misunderstanding of talent in basketball. I read articles that suggest that the coaches of the uber-talented must “let them play” or that the uber-talented cannot fit into a style other than a stereotypical AAU game. Is a player talented if he excels only in 3v2 fast-breaks, isolations, or catch and dunk lobs? Read the rest of this entry »

The Missing Storyline from Linsanity (aka The Jeremy Lin Story)

February 15th, 2012

I watched Jeremy Lin when he led Paly to the CIF State Championship in 2006, as I was living in Sacramento and knew many players, coaches, and fans in the Bay Area. I knew Mitch Stephens, who was criticized when he picked Lin as the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Player of the Year. I have written several times about Jeremy Lin (here, and here) and Poor Man’s Commish has kept everyone updated via twitter for years, but I do not know Lin or his story personally, so this is a view from the outside. Read the rest of this entry »

Khan Academy as a Way to Change Athlete Development

May 6th, 2011

There are four takeaways for me:

1. The knowledge map that he creates is essentially what we tried to do with the Train for Hoops program four years ago. Academics are suited for the program because you complete the assignments online and the computer program assesses your performance automatically and uses the algorithm to design the next assignment. In basketball, players had to track and input their own performance. As coaches and parents told me over and over, that is too much work for a player.

It is not ideal. However, it begs the question: if you’re not prepared to spend an extra 10 minutes writing down your performance during your workout and transcribing it to a computer online to generate a progressive workout program, how serious are you about your improvement? If you go through a workout without tracking your progress by any measure – whether video analysis, outcome totals, time – how do you know that you are improving? How do you know that your effort is leading somewhere?

2. “The paradigm is that once you get 10 in a row, it forwards you into more and more advanced modules.” Is that how we progress players? Khan calls this a “System of Mastery.” School is not like this. When you take a math class in school, you do Chapter 1, you do the homework and you take a test. You are evaluated on the test, which becomes your grade, and you move to chapter 2. This creates gaps in your knowledge. If you scored an 80% on the Chapter 1 test, that means you did not master 20% of the material. In most cases, the material builds, so you have a 20% hole in your foundation for chapter 2.

Youth sport is more like the traditional educational system. A child signs up for an u8 basketball team. His responsible coach teaches him the basic fundamentals. However, he does not master all the skills. The next season, he signs up for u9 with gaps in his skills that may or may not be corrected. If the u8 player never learns to jump stop properly, and the u9 coach assumes all the players know how to jump stop, the player may progress to u10s not knowing how to jump stop. He may not be called for travels every time in the games because the officials have a lot of leeway with u8s and u9s, so he and his parents may not even see the gaps in his development. At u10, all of a sudden, he doesn’t play much because he constantly gets called for traveling or because he’s terribly off-balance when he shoots. He gets discouraged and quits, and it stems from the lack of focus on skill mastery when he was 8. He moved to the next level because of age, not mastery, and he lacked the foundation to build skills. Some players progress on and on with a gap in their skill level or general fundamental movement skills until high school. A player may be fast enough to hide his inability to dribble with his left hand, a skill that should be mastered at a young age. Eventually, that gap in his skills will prevent him from progressing.

How can we create leagues that are based more on mastery of skills for promotion than age or size?

3. At around 11:20, he shows data from the Los Altos School District. “Over and over, five days in, there is a group that’s raced ahead and a group that’s fallen behind.” Once those children who have fallen behind get past the one concept, they race ahead. The implication is that classes are often grouped by a snapshot of ability; similarly, teams are picked based on a snapshot of ability. However, a player may be stuck on one concept or move, and once they master that move or concept, they race ahead. If they are cut because of that snapshot, they may never master that move or concept because they have been weeded out of the competitive stream, and they likely quit.

4. When he shows the data of the Los Altos School District, he says about the green color (children who are proficient in a concept) and the red color (children who are struggling with a concept), “Even better, let me get one of the green kids to intervene and be the first line of attack and tutor their peer.” What a great way to enhance both students’ learning while also keeping the students at somewhat of a similar level! Teaching the concept to a peer will enhance the student’s understanding and retention of the material.

Similarly, reader Josh Littlejohn put his players in charge of the team for a game to see how they would react to a lack of a coach. It is an interesting example of an athlete-centered environment.

The Khan Academy illustrates a fundamental shift in the way that we organize the classroom. Is it possible that similar concepts can re-organize the sports development environment?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

Identifying Age or Potential

March 4th, 2010

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2009.

My first organized sport was soccer. In kindergarten, I joined a soccer club sponsored by my church. My teammates were mostly 1st graders. With a late September birthday, I started school late, so I was older for my class. However, youth soccer had a January 1 cut-off date, so I played with the children in the grade ahead of me.

I felt that I had an advantage playing with the older kids. I played on a good team and was an average player. Initially, I played the midfield, usually on the right side, but I fought to play as a central midfielder. I liked to control the action and cover the whole field as I could run all day.

Ken, a friend in my class, played competitive/club soccer. He tried out and made the big club team in our area and traveled to tournaments throughout the west coast. At school, our soccer skills and athleticism were even. However, he had a February birthday, so while I played in the u-12s, he made an under-10 team. We were even at recess, but our competition away from school differed because of our birthdays.

When Ken joined the competitive team, we were basically equal. However, after several years of competitive soccer, he was a better player. While I played soccer from August – November, he played year-round, and he played against better competition. He had soccer coaches, while we had parent volunteers coaching our team.

When we got to high school, Ken made the high school team while I did not try-out – the best player from my team did not make the high school team during the previous year, so I did not think that I had a chance. Every player who made the high school team played competitive youth soccer, except the back-up goalie who looked around on the first day of try-outs, decided he was not good enough as a field player and tried out as the only goalie in the freshmen class.

As one of the oldest kids in my class, I had the advantage of age and physical maturity during elementary school. In basketball, a sport which I played with school teams, I was one of the taller players, so I had an advantage. However, in soccer, I was on the wrong side, as I played on teams with kids who were eight or nine months older, so I was an average player, not a candidate for a club/competitive team.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study by a Canadian psychologist which found that “in any elite group of Canadian hockey players, 40 percent of the players will have been born in January, February and March.” Canada uses a January 1 cut-off date for junior hockey. Coaches identify talent at young ages and shepherd the talented players onto the elite teams.

When coaches looked at me playing with my soccer team, I did not stand out. My friend, however, was bigger, faster and stronger than most of the kids that he played against. Even though our recess games were even, his size and speed helped him make a competitive team. The coach did not identify talent, but the advantages of birth. With a February birth date, he was older than most of the other players who tried out, and at 10-years-old, a five to six month age advantage can be a big deal. When coaches choose the select or all-star teams, “they are more likely to view as talented the bigger and more coordinated players who have the benefit of critical extra months of maturity,” (Gladwell).

Even on my recreation team, the best players had birthdays in January and February. The better players also played forward, goalie and sweeper. The worst players played outside fullback or outside midfield. This happens in every sport: the best baseball players pitch and play shortstop, while the worst plays right field; in basketball, the best player plays point guard and the worst player plays post. Unfortunately, when coaches distinguish the best and the worst, they distinguish the older and the more coordinated, not the most talented or those with the most potential.

In the beginning, the differences are small. Ken and I were similar as 10 and 11-year-olds. On my team, the forwards were basically the same as the midfielders and fullbacks; they were a little faster and a little bigger. However, as the inherent age advantages decreased, the differences on the pitch were more pronounced. Barnsley [the Canadian psychologist] argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming and differentiated experience.

If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented;” and if you provide the “talented” with superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to the small group of people born closest to the cut-off date (Gladwell).

Because Ken made the competitive team, he had access to better coaching, more practice and better competition. Over several years, these advantages helped him develop his skills far more than I did with my recreational team. Even though I was older,  his competitive experience gave him a greater advantage.

We have a poor understanding of the road to success or excellence, and without a better understanding, our ability to evaluate and identify talent diminishes. When ranking players, choosing teams or identifying prospects, we need to look deeper than size, speed and strength, as those characteristics tend to balance as players continue to develop and all the players go through puberty. What we see as talent at an early age is often not talent, but age. Rather than choose and develop the older players, we need a system by which we identify true talents or we need to wait to identify “talent” and differentiate training until the advantages of maturity disappear.

When we identify talent at an early age and then provide the talented with a better training experience, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which sociologist Robert Merton defines as a situation where “a false definition, in the beginning…evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” At 10-years-old, Ken was not more talented. By making the team and going through years of better training, he became a better player. Rather than credit the different experience which developed him into a better player, we credit his natural talent.

Because I was an average soccer player, but a pretty good basketball player, I spent more time playing and practicing my basketball skills, while Ken trained for soccer. I chose the sport where I had an age advantage, while he chose the sport where he had the age advantage. Neither of us made a conscious choice to pursue an activity where we were given a slight advantage; instead, we gravitated to the sports where we found early success, even though we played both sports until high school.

As a society, we believe that if you have ability, the vast network of scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you (Gladwell). However, as Barnsley’s study illustrates, those born in the last half of the year have all been discouraged, or overlooked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half of the athletic population has been squandered (Gladwell).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League