Getting to know why children play sports

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2013.

The Golden Circle, codified by author Simon Sinek, explains the ability of some to inspire or succeed despite the same access or talent as their less inspirational or successful peers. The Golden Circle is three circles: The largest circle is labeled “What”, the middle circle is labeled “How” and the innermost circle is labeled “Why”.

In his Tedx talk, Sinek explains that all individuals or organizations know what they do, most know how they do it, but few know why they do it. Sinek continues that “why” means “your purpose, your cause, or your belief.” The purpose or cause separates the great or amazing companies or individuals from the others.

The first question that sports psychologist Dr. Ken Ravizza asks his clients or young athletes is why they do what they do. In an old article on the Rivals network, Ravizza said that an athlete won’t succeed if he does not know his goal. “Every athlete will tell you they like doing their sport, but the key is finding out why. You want to get the players to know why they’re enjoying themselves,” he said.

In Sinek’s talk, he says that money or profit is a result, not a purpose. Similarly, for an athlete, a college scholarship or a win is the result, not the purpose. Sinek and Ravizza believe those who succeed will have a purpose or belief beyond the eventual outcome.

When I was training dozens of basketball players, I stopped working with players who could not tell me why they worked out. If they were there because their parents dropped them off, I ended our training. I needed the players to have a purpose for their training.

Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, has written that the new way to identify talent is the growth potential or what he termed the G-Factor. Two signs of the G-Factor are early ownership and grit. If an athlete shows up for training without being able to answer why, the athlete has not taken ownership of his or her training or success. The athlete does not have a purpose.

The purpose impacts improvement because one of the components of deliberate practice, the element which psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has identified as the differentiating experience of experts, is having a purpose or a specific goal for the practice. For instance, a young baseball player would not go to the batting cages and swing wildly at 100 balls and call it a day. Instead, the young baseball player picks one aspect of his swing (like hitting the ball to the opposite field) and focuses on that one aspect. Ericsson has said that deliberate practice is not fun and that it is draining because it requires a high degree of mental concentration. This is qualitatively different than swinging at 100 balls even if the quantity of practice (based on time or number of pitches) is the same.

Purpose, ownership, and deliberate practice are important for those striving for expert performance. However, not every child is ready to take ownership for his or her practice. This is the difference between playing and training. Every child should be encouraged to play sports and engage in as many playful activities as possible without the pressure of training for these activities. For an eight-year-old, practice should be fun; after all, even Dr. Ericsson acknowledges that one must have a passion for an activity before engaging in deliberate practice because there has to be the love for the activity to sustain the person through the drudgeries and mental fatigue of deliberate practice.

With young athletes, training and playing should not be confused. When coaches or parents attempt to apply adult routines to children, the activities lose their playfulness, and in many cases, the children’s interest. Young children lack a purpose; they simply want to play. They want to be active and play with friends whether their play is technically correct or not. They are unconcerned with mistakes or the right way to kick or throw a ball; they just want to do it. As the activity or sport becomes more interesting to the child, he or she begins to move from simple play or activity to a stage where he or she wants to learn the correct way to perform the skill. Activity is no longer sufficient to sustain the child; now the child wants to improve his or her skill or the novelty of the activity wears out and the child seeks activity and playfulness through another avenue. Watch the recess of activities of different children: They start by chasing each other, move to hopscotch, chase a ball, play a few minutes of soccer, etc. They are searching for activity and fun, not for expertise. However, when they begin to stick with an activity for longer and longer periods of time, they are interested in learning and improving their performance in the activity.

Training for a sport or engaging in deliberate practice becomes important when the athlete can answer the question of why. For young children, if they can answer why they play, a typical answer is to have fun, to play with friends, or to get in or stay in shape. As children develop and take the game more seriously, some may answer that they want to master a skill or they want to see how good that they can become. Other common answers are to make a team, to win, or to earn a scholarship, but those are outcome-oriented and will not sustain the same type of success as a more process-oriented answer, according to Sinek. Once the athlete has a goal or a purpose, then he or she is prepared to take ownership of his or her training and engage in more purposeful training.

When parents of young children inquire about skill training for their child, I tell them to take the child to the park. If the child cannot sustain himself for more than 10-15 minutes shooting by himself before he runs to the swings or switches to some other activity, then he does not need specialized training. He enjoys playing basketball, but he is not ready to train for basketball. He knows the what, but he does not have an answer for the why.

This is normal. This is good. Playing and engaging in many activities is healthy, and too much specialized training at too young of an age can be limiting. A 2011 study found that elite athletes specialized in a single sport at a later age and trained less during childhood than their near-elite peers (Moesch, Elbe, Hauge, & Wikman, 2011). For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status (Jayanthi et al., 2012). Research has shown that only a third of international pre-junior athletes reappeared as senior athletes (Barreiros, Côté, & Fonseca, 2012). Of even more importance since few child athletes will become elite performers was a 2012 study that found that many hours of sports participation and sampling of various sports has a positive effect on future fitness and gross motor coordination (Fransen et al., 2012).

Young children should play; they do not need to train. However, for a child to reach an expert level of performance, there must be a change at some point during adolescence. This change is signified by taking ownership of one’s practice – asking for a ride to a basketball court to practice on one’s own rather than waiting for a parent to suggest a trip to the park to play. At this point, the child likely has an answer to the why question; he or she has a goal or a purpose, and this purpose is enough to sustain the player through the deliberate practice required to reach an expert level. The key, however, is that the child has to discover this why rather than being pushed into it too much and too early. Taking ownership and answering why is the sign that the child is ready to move beyond playing a sport and pursue more intensive training.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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