Posts Tagged ‘Talent Development’

The unpredictability of talent identification and development

Friday, 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. (more…)

The perfect grassroots talent development basketball system

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

As I pulled into a middle school to referee a soccer game between two local club teams, I saw an advertisement for the local recreation league that will sponsor teams in the fall. For a second, I thought of the gradual migration of new signups to the recreational league to the select few making the competitive club team, and the progression made sense. The better players moved to more competitive, year-round soccer, and the lesser players played a fall season of recreational soccer. Then I remember that I was refereeing 10-year-olds, and I questioned whether or not it was fair to make these determinations of talent at such a young age.  (more…)

Playing time matters, but so does grit

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

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?  (more…)

Should leagues mandate equal playing time for youth basketball?

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

When I coached junior varsity girls basketball and freshmen boys basketball, I committed to playing every player in every half of every game. Initially, the varsity coach instructed me to play everyone in every game with the JV team, but I continued to play everyone at the next school, even when I felt that the varsity coach disagreed with the egalitarian approach to playing time. To me, these are developmental levels, and playing everyone fits with a developmental model. (more…)

Play, small-sided games, and talent development

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Nearly every child starts basketball in a 5v5 league, and nearly every week, I watch or referee varsity high-school teams with players who lack basic skills. If insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, why are parents and coaches so opposed to starting youth basketball players in small-sided games rather than 5v5 leagues? Baseball players start with tee-ball, and soccer players start with 4v4, 5v5, or 7v7. Why are there so many objections to modifying basketball? (more…)

Parenting through the youth sports experience

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2012.

Parents frequently ask me about pushing their child. They are unsure of the fine line between offering encouragement and opportunities and pushing an activity onto their child. When children begin organized athletics, the parent almost always makes the decision, as few five, six, or seven year-olds know what they want to do; at the same time, almost any kind of activity is interesting to a child at that age.  (more…)

Specialization and Training Volumes: What does it all mean?

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2011.

A recent article from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports titled “Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports” concluded that athletes who specialized later (mid to late teens) fared better than those who specialized in a sport at an earlier age. In truth, the study focused more on training volume, than specialization. (more…)

Ajax: A Model for Development?

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2010.

In the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, Michael Sokolove wrote “How a Soccer Star is Made” in the New York Times about Ajax, a club team in Amsterdam famous for its Total Football style of play and the development of young soccer stars, including several who played for the Netherlands in South Africa. Despite its small size and population, the soccer world looks to the Netherlands, and specifically to Ajax, for its methods of developing youth soccer talent.

Despite its international success in numerous sports, the United States lacks a definitive development system. In most team sports, players bounce from recreation leagues to club teams to school teams with little to no coordination, progression or consistency between leagues, clubs, schools, teams and coaches.

In effect, the system creates a “survival of the fittest” process, as the biggest, strongest athletes receive more playing time and are selected for teams as children get older and the competitive stream narrows.

In Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I categorize four athlete types: Recreational, Developmental, Competitive and Elite. When I was young, children progressed through the first three types gradually and at one’s own pace.

I played on soccer and baseball teams when I was seven-years-old, but there was no performance pressure. These teams were about having fun and making new friends. Eventually I started to play basketball and quickly decided that I wanted to be a good player, so I practiced on my own and attended camps. I played on teams focused more on teaching fundamentals and preparing players to make high school teams than winning games.

When I reached high school, tryouts for teams grew very competitive, and those who made the team competed for league, area and state championships. The better players sought more developmental experiences to expand their games and their athleticism to prepare for college sports or professional careers.

Now, many children completely ignore the recreational and developmental steps, as teams quickly turn competitive. Youth teams focus on winning games and tournaments and play far more than they train. Youth teams often practice once or twice per week and play in weekend tournaments with three to five games.

The Ajax system largely skips the recreational step as well. Ajax uses scouts who scour the countryside for potential professional footballers as young as five-years-old. Those invited to the the academy enter into a prolonged developmental stage. “The boys are not overplayed…Through age 12, they train only three times per week and play one game on the weekend” (Sokolove).

The academy focuses on the process, not the results. The goal is to move players from the developmental programs quickly through a competitive period in their late teens and on to the elite (professional) level at a young age (late teens/early twenties).

Youth sport is a billion-dollar business in the United States, and the entrepreneurialism affects the environment in which youth players develop. Likewise, the Ajax academy is very much a business, and its approach to business influences its approach to youth development.

In the U.S., a youth athlete is a commodity. Coaches, instructors, facilities, leagues and clubs profit immediately from participation and increase revenue by increasing quantities. More tournaments with more teams and more players per team mean more revenue for the businessmen (coaches/tournament operators).

Ajax treats youth athletes like an investment or asset, and it profits by maximizing the asset’s talent and selling the asset to a bigger, richer club as the asset matures. Wesley Sneijder, the star of the Dutch National team and Serie A (Italy’s top league) champion Inter Milan, started with Ajax when he was seven, and Real Madrid bought his contract for 27 million euros when he was 23.

The different business approaches create different positives and negatives. For a player entering the Ajax system, he receives professional coaching throughout his childhood and every possible resource to maximize his talent. Ajax’s style of play “demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizard-like ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.”

Rather than engage in common drills, “training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line-up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range…these exercises [are] designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball.”

While teams in the U.S. compete to win games, even at the youngest ages, the Ajax academy is more concerned with developing players. Once the players develop their individual technical and tactical skills and move to higher levels of competitions, Ajax cares more about the results. However, at the young ages, the process of developing the player supersedes any result.

U.S. teams often pigeon-hole players into positions and concentrate solely on position-specific skills. Rather than concentrate on important skills like field vision and a player’s first touch, fullbacks are taught to boot the ball out of trouble and midfielders send low-percentage through balls to strikers whose role is to shoot on goal. Teams concentrate on winning the next game, not developing skills for the long term.

Most differently, a child selected to train at Ajax incurs no fees except a nominal insurance charge. The academy pays for its professional staff as an investment – the business’s research and development budget. In the U.S., players pay to play, and more competitive teams or clubs with better coaching typically cost more than local or recreational leagues.

The negative side of Ajax’s investment is that when it becomes apparent that a player lacks the requisite talent or skill to develop into a professional player, the academy dismisses him.

These players, and there are many as only so many players reach the professional side each season, suffer emotionally and socially. One unnamed youth player said, “My best friend left [was cut] two years ago…I don’t speak to him anymore. He thought that I was not in touch enough, that I was not supporting him. He was furious. I realized he was just a football friend and that you can’t have real friends at Ajax” (Sokolove).

While the U.S. system may not provide the professional coaching like a European club’s academy, many youth players develop life-long friends through youth sports. My best friends are guys who I played against in middle school who became my high school teammates.

Our coaches were parent volunteers and while they may not have been baseball, soccer or basketball experts, they insured a safe environment where we had fun and made friends (several friends did earn college scholarships or play professionally).

Beyond the social aspects are academic and other non-soccer pursuits. Another player said, “I would feel very bad if I’m not one of them [professional player]. I have tried everything I can do to make it. I haven’t done as much in school as I could. I would feel like I’ve been wasting my time all these years. I would get very depressed” (Sokolove).

Many youths in the States pursue college or professional careers and manage to excel academically and in other pursuits. When their competitive careers end, they transfer the athletic lessons like determination or work ethic to new pursuits in academia, coaching, business, parenting and other areas of their lives. When asked if he might have learned something at Ajax which would benefit him in a non-football life, this boy answered, “No. We’re training for football, not for anything else.”

Unfortunately, youth development in the U.S. appears to be adopting some of the negative consequences of the Ajax’s academy without incorporating the positives. While many coaches remain volunteers and the progression between age groups, leagues and teams remains disjointed, more and more youth athletes feel a pressure to reach a certain goal – usually a college scholarship – to feel like their athletic endeavors had a purpose. Without the scholarship, they feel they wasted their time.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the Sawyer Effect: practices that can either turn play into work or turn work into play. Many children no longer play sports; they train or work at sports, even from a young age. When this work fails to result in the end-goal or a pay-off for the effort, they feel like a failure. They do not remember the fun of playing a game, learning new things or challenging oneself. Instead, they view the time spent pursuing an unrealized goal as time lost.

There is a fine line between the benefits of a professional development system like Ajax and the ruination of children’s games and play for the sake of playing. While a more balanced approach to training and competition and better organized practices may enhance a child’s experience and his talent development, is it worth the possibility that he views sports as work rather than play? Is it so bad if some players squander some of their athletic talent because they pursue multiple sports or act in plays or start a band?

Should the business of youth sports cater to the development of professional athletes or promote healthy living and life-long activity? I certainly advocate for changes to the way that we develop youth athletes in the United States, but part of the change must be a return to play for the sake of playing.

“Recreational” should not be viewed as a bad word or a dumbed-down program for the uncompetitive. Young athletes need a healthy progression from recreational to developmental to competitive to elite (if good enough) based on their own interests and motivations. Playing sports should be fun, not work, and nobody should view their youth sports experience as time wasted regardless of the outcome.

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

Overtraining Against the Law?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

A friend sent me a link to this article about a custody hearing involving a “Little League Dad.”

The father of two Long Island junior tennis prospects has been stripped of custody by a New York state judge who found their rigorous training schedule to be “overly burdensome, exhausting and completely unacceptable.”

The Cavallero brothers — Giancarlo, 10, and Jordy, 5 — were required to leave school early to spend six hours a day at tennis practice and play tournaments on the weekends.

But in a ruling last week, Acting Supreme Court Justice Norman St. George of Nassau County found the “grueling” training regimen had left the children “constantly tired, regularly late to school … and their tennis appears to be negatively impacted.”

On the other hand, I saw this video on Yahoo! Sports of MMA fighter Jens Pulver’s son Karson.

Look at the form on his squats! Sometimes, the early start is fun and games and encouraging an active lifestyle. However, sometimes dreams and ambitions lead to a loss of perspective. Sometimes, it is a fine line to walk between pushing too much and starting too early and just letting a child have fun.

A Parent’s Role in Youth Sports

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

The November issue of Inc. features an interview with comic book legend Stan Lee. Lee says:

“My mother was the greatest mother in the world. She thought I was the greatest thing on two feet. I’d come home with a little composition I had written at school and she’d look at it and say, ‘It’s wonderful! You’re another Shakespeare! I always assumed that I could do anything. It really is amazing how much that has to do with your attitude.”

For more thoughts on parenting through the athletic process, read: