Grassroots basketball development and the escalation trap

Grassroots basketball is a dynamic system, and as with other systems, it is susceptible to certain traps. One trap is the escalation trap:

 “Escalation, being a reinforcing feedback loop, builds explonentially. Therefore it can carry a competition to extremes faster than anyone would believe possible. If nothing is done to break the loop, the process usually ends with one or both of the competitors breaking down,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 125).

I had different draft written on this topic, but this morning, Dr. Hartman tweeted a link to a blog post titled, “Athlete Development: The Process.” His blog fit nicely with the theme.

Dr. Hartman wrote about the athlete development process started in the Eastern Bloc countries in the mid-20th Century.

During the first few years, all children performed a variety of sports such as soccer, running, skating, gymnastics, rowing, track and field, and team sports.  This period of multilateral development was known as general physical preparation (GPP).  The main goal of GPP was to order develop functional work capacities and a wide variety of motor skills that would serve as a base for increased athletic development and performance at the higher levels. During this time, sport-specific training was limited, and constituted only 5-10% of the training load.

Development in western countries used to follow a similar path, although typically with different sports. Children engaged in physical education classes at school that taught a variety of sports (we tried everything from dodgeball to ballroom dancing in my elementary school P.E. classes), and played multiple sports, whether formally in leagues or informally on the playgrounds and in their neighborhoods. As a child, I was exposed to karate, swimming, running, football, soccer, basketball, baseball, kickball, cycling, gymnastics, tennis, and others.

After this initial period of multi-sport participation, children narrowed their focus:

Specialized physical preparation (SPP) programs began between 15 –17 years, once children were selected for a particular sport.  SPP included training that was aimed at developing physical, technical, tactical and psychological adaptations that would be necessary to succeed in the given sport.  During this period, the training was more structured and exercises were chosen were specifically prepare the athlete to succeed in the sport of choice. 

Again, the same happened in western countries. When I entered high school, my basketball coach – my primary sport – suggested that I skip baseball tryouts to focus on basketball. I played three sports as a high-school freshman (cross country and track & field), and only one thereafter.

In many ways, this is an evidence-based, progressive athlete development system. The escalation trap happened when coaches, parents, and athletes decided that moving to the SPP at an earlier age would improve skills. Initially, that meant at the start of high school, as many athletes are forced, explicitly or implicitly, to choose one sport. Then, because specializing at 14 was deemed better than at 15-17, parents, coaches, and athletes decided earlier and earlier would be better.

In many cases, it was parents trying to give their child the best opportunity for him or her to be successful. If the child enjoyed basketball, they played on multiple teams or specialized in only basketball or worked with a private coach. When that became the norm for 14 year olds, other parents started with younger children, which caused other parents to start even younger. This is the reinforcing feedback loop. Once the escalation trap starts, it is difficult to stop. No parent wants to be the one to tell his or her basketball-obsessed child that he or she does not need the same private coaching or competitive team as his or her peers. They worry that their child may fall behind without this specialized practice. It’s all about keeping up with, and surpassing, the Joneses’.

And, that is where we are now. We have driven the GPP out of the athlete development process. Children specialize at a younger and younger age, and there are numerous consequences, from burnout to chronic injuries. However, because everyone does it, everyone has to do it. The only way to stop the escalation is for one parent, one athlete, one school, one club, etc to be the first to return to the GPP process. When that athlete, club, school, etc., has success, the escalation trap will work the other way.

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

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