Education, Contextual Interference and Competition to Promote Talent Development

In an interview, Xavi, the star of the Spanish National Team and F.C. Barcelona, introduces three concepts pivotal to talent development: (1) Education (development) over winning; (2) contextual interference; and (3) competition – dealing with failure.

Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, ‘Yep, he’ll do.’ Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it’s an Ajax model. It’s all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it’s humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.

Unfortunately, many youth coaches seem to avoid these three things, which leads to a breakdown in the talent development process.

First, we have a Peak by Friday mentality where winning takes precedence over education (development). Rather than concentrate on developing skills, coaches focus on game preparation for the next game. Coaches and leagues use a short-term mentality.

Second, many coaches rely on constant or block practice. An example of block practice is doing one skill repeatedly with little to no variation. For instance, a team could run through its offense 5v0 for 20-25 straight repetitions to memorize the offense. Another example is sending players to the free throw line to shoot 10 straight free throws as shooting practice. Block practice leads to immediate practice performance improvement, but does not transfer well to games. Block practice appears organized and well-planned, which is how we imagine good practices. However, if the practice does not transfer to the games, is it a good practice?

Finally, we worry so much about children’s self-esteen that we have removed many traditional games and drills because we fear that a child will feel ostracized if he loses at a practice game. We have turned failure into such a negative that we must avoid it at all costs, which robs players and children of important learning opportunities.

To improve our developmental environment, we need to remember these three things: development before winning; contextual interference to improve learning and transfer; and more safe competition where players can fail and learn from mistakes.

Youth sports should emphasize fun, development and learning. If professional athletes have this much fun in training, why aren’t 10-year-olds?

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

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