Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2015.
As the game clock dwindled toward zero, and his son remained on the bench, the father wondered about the best course of action. What was the point of a 10-year-old playing on a basketball team if he never played in the games? What happens to a child as he grows if his father is there to make everything okay?
Two of the original 12 players had quit the team already, but their departures did not impact the son’s playing time. His son was not the worst player on the team; the coach’s rotation went six deep, meaning there were others who watched the entire game from the bench. The coach was not a bad coach, nor inexperienced, as he was the neighborhood high school coach, in addition to coaching his son’s youth team.
When the father asked my advice, my initial reaction was to find a new team for the boy. From the perspective of physical growth and skill development, players need to play. This question occurs frequently and at different stages of development. Some feel that children need to play on the most competitive club team in order to improve because players who play with and against the best are destined to improve more than those who do not. At the high-school level, many coaches promote young players to the varsity because they want them to practice with the better players regardless of whether or not they will play meaningful minutes.
Several years ago, my friend coached an AAU basketball team that was comprised of girls who eventually attended two middle schools (one public and one private) and three high schools (two public and one private). For the most part, they were a neighborhood team or a community team as opposed to some of their competitors who drew players from across the entire metropolitan region. Because they were a community team, they were derided by others as being just a recreational team, suggesting that truly competitive players would travel outside their neighborhood for practices. The players were nine years-old.
Unfortunately, this is the perception that has developed in youth sports. First, we believe that children need to train for a sport, rather than playing for fun, at younger and younger ages. Second, we believe that serious players play on elite teams, not recreational or neighborhood teams. Finally, we believe that being on these elite teams, and identifying the elite players at young ages, is more important than actually playing the game.
I once trained several 10-year-old boys who attended the same school. Two played for a local club team, and the third played for a shoe-sponsored team that recruited players from the entire metropolitan area. Whereas the two boys played with their friends from their school, the third played with boys from throughout the city, which meant that his father had to leave work early to drive him to practices more than 30 minutes from his house. The two players played all of the time. They were in the same club, but one played on the A team, and the other on the B team. Each was the best or close to the best on his team. Consequently, they played almost the entire game, and they possessed the ball on most possessions, leading their teams in shot attempts. The third boy rarely played. The three fathers were happy; the first two were happy because their sons received a lot of playing time and took a lot of shots, whereas the third father was pleased because his son attended big-name tournaments, traveled the country, and received free gear. The first two players started on varsity high-school teams; the third never played basketball beyond the freshmen team.
Mark O’Sullivan, the sports director of Espanyol Football in Stockholm recently wrote about another Stockholm-based club named Enskede IK. Through the determination of one parent-coach, Enskede decided to delay the selection of first-team players until girls were 15 years-old and boys were 16 years-old. For years, the club was failing to develop players for their senior team despite the early identification of the talented players. To remedy this problem, they adopted the philosophy of “as many as possible as long as possible.”
Rather than create an A team, a B team, and an elite team, such as the players who I trained, or playing only six players from the club team in games, or deriding the local neighborhood club team, the goal was to attract as many young children from the community as possible to the club and keep them in the club for as long as possible. Rather than cutting players to focus on the elite, or forming graded teams at each level that could affect opportunities, coaching, and motivation, the players were treated equally throughout their development.
Despite our perception that children have to play with and against the best to develop into elite players, Gilles Rouillon, the Head of Academy Recruitment for AJ Auxerre (France), believes that “the strength of the opposition is not a major concern until players reach under-15 – then, in his experience, it becomes more important for the boys to be challenged more (Nesti & Sulley, 2015). The 10-year-old who played for the B team eventually became the best player of the three, and two of the players from my friend’s club team that was derided as just a rec team now play professionally, while another two finish their last seasons of NCAA Division 1 basketball. Playing with and against the lesser talented at the younger ages certainly did not hold back these players.
For these reasons, I initially suggested that my friend move his son to another team where he would play more and have more opportunity for skill development and growth. However, as I thought about my gut reaction, I realized that that behavior by the father would be the same behavior that I criticize in other parents. Whereas I understand the decision to transfer a child to another team to get more playing time and maintain motivation in the sport, when parents always step in to solve the child’s problems, children become less resilient and more fragile.
Young athletes tend to perceive the road to success as being easier and with fewer hardships than the path portrayed by elite athletes (Henriksen & Mortensen, 2014). The careers of the elite athletes were filled with challenging transitions and concerns, situations that the young athletes failed to imagine. Over the last decade, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth has shown a correlation between success and grit, which she defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth et al., 2007).
Young athletes believe the path to greatness will be a smooth, linear path, but elite athletes responded that the path was much harder. Improvement or talent development is not linear; there are ups and downs, successes and failures. Duckworth’s research has shown that those who ultimately succeed are not necessarily the most talented, but the ones who continue to work through the adversity.
What will happen to my friend’s son if the father moves him to another team in order to avoid the adversity? He may feel that the path to greatness will be easy because he was able to maneuver out of a bad situation and find a better one. It would be easy to blame the coach and rationalize the change of teams. What happens in 3-4 years when the same thing happens again? When he makes a high school team, but does not play, will he transfer? Will his father move him to another high school?
The path to greatness is not easy, and it is multifaceted. Decisions about young children are not easy because a decision that is positive for skill development may end up as a negative for emotional, psychological, or social development. Ultimately, talent development is an N=1 problem. Some children may be strong mentally, but need more physical growth and skill development, and changing teams would be the right decision. Other children may need to develop more and better mental skills, and sticking through an adverse situation, while not fun, may be the best decision for the child’s overall development.