The Current State of Youth Basketball in the United States

We can divide sports participants, regardless of age, into one of four categories though every athlete possesses some characteristics from each: Recreational, Developmental, Competitive and Elite.

playgroundRecreational athletes dominate either end of the age spectrum, either novice players or weekend warriors. Fun and exercise motivate recreational athletes; training is not extensive, as play is most important.

Developmental athletes are common throughout the four stages. Skill acquisition, learning and improvement motivate developmental athletes, and they use competition to measure their progress, not determine their rank.

Competitive athletes take the game seriously, train on and off the court and compete to win and continue their career. Most athletes transition naturally from Developmental to Competitive around 14 to 16-years-old. However, if an athlete is too competitive too early, he peaks, stunts his basketball development, hinders his athletic enjoyment and loses motivation.

Elite athletes arise toward the end of high school, though some players blossom early; elite athletes possess college and professional potential and ability. They manifest similar characteristics to the competitive athlete, but their talent exceeds their peers. Elite athletes require special nurturing to maximize their ability.

tigerIn the rush to produce elite players, parents, coaches and athletes skip the recreational and developmental steps and rush eight and nine-year-olds into competitive sports. Players who forsake these periods in favor of the Competitive period do not necessarily reach Elite basketball faster or at all. Instead, expert performers start like any other child and develop gradually rather than all at once. While parents point to Tiger Woods to illustrate the importance of early childhood dedication and competition, Woods is the exception, not the rule.

While the youth system aims to develop the future college and NBA performers, the reality is that most children will never reach an elite level. Currently, 70% of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13 (Thompson). These kids not only fail to develop into elite players, but they leave sports altogether which contributes to a lack of fitness into adulthood.

Educate and Compete

While observing youth basketball on different continents and in various settings, I realized that we – the coaches, parents and administrators – short-change the players’ experiences. Mostly, we ignore the classical definitions of two words: educate and compete.

We use “educate” to mean that an expert “fills up” a non-expert with information. However, the root words of “educate” mean “to bring forth.” A teacher or coach does not fill up a student or player with knowledge, but inspires the self-discovery of knowledge or skills. Athletes who learn the intricacies of a game on their own perform better than those who are heavily coached, according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Similarly, when we use “compete” we mean “to be in rivalry.” However, in Latin, its roots mean “to seek together.” The competition is not the enemy, but an ally in an effort to reach one’s optimal performance. Without a strong opponent, one will never maximize his talent. We stress this in practice, as we motivate the role or bench players to play hard to challenge the starters, but the same is true of external opponents. The true competition is not with another, but with oneself.

Early Experience

high school ball

Typically, a child joins a sports team or league because he demonstrates an interest and an aptitude for the sport informally. Play, activity, fun and friends motivate the child. However, on an organized team, coaches ignore these motivations and concentrate on hard work, not fun. Organized, competitive teams introduce an outcome orientation which runs counter to the fun and discovery of informal play.

When players move to formal teams, two problems occur:

(1) The game changes from a player-directed, informal, fun environment to an adult-centered, competition-based atmosphere. The immediate competitive play, termed Peak by Friday by Dr. Istvan Balyi, inhibits well-rounded athletic skill development because it focuses on the result, rather than learning.

(2) Basketball-specific activities replace general games like tag, chasing the dog and riding bikes. Play is lost and the fun disappears. This differs from playing on the playground, and many quit.

In this environment, players achieve maximum results in high school. Many girls peak around their sophomore year of high school, while many boys peak before they matriculate to college. I followed a girl’s AAU team from 8th to 12th grade: all but one player peaked in 8th or 9th grade.

“This is the narrow approach applied to children’s sports, in which the only scope of training is achieving quick results, irrespective of what may happen in the future of the young athlete. In their attempt to achieve the fast results, coaches expose children to highly specific and intensive training without taking the time to build a good base. This is like trying to build a high rise building on a poor foundation. Obviously, such a construction error will result in the collapse of the building. Likewise, encouraging athletes to narrowly focus on their development in one sport before they are ready physically and psychologically often leads to problems,” (Bompa).

According to NCAA statistics, 1% to 3% of high school basketball players play NCAA basketball. Parents, players and coaches see these statistics, and believe the best path to a coveted scholarship is to start before other kids, to specialize before other kids, to use a personal trainer more often and to go to more camps.

The irony is that so many players and parents have one eye fixed on the future, yet few people plan or organize long term athlete development (LTAD). Players go season to season, team to team and coach to coach with eyes fixed on the prize, but no plan. Nowhere is the future so omnipresent, yet nowhere is less emphasis given to the path to the desired destination. The entire basketball system epitomizes John Wooden’s refrain: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

A new model must meet the needs of all players, whether recreational, developmental or competitive and provide the right environment for players to develop their skills and enjoy the experience. While focusing on fun and learning, athletes develop better and broader skills. If the player has a happy confluence of work ethic, genetics, opportunity and skills, he or she may conquer the scholarship quest. If not, the athlete will lead a happier childhood with a greater appreciation for sports and more well-rounded athletic skills.

Cross Over, 3rd Edition front CoverCross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development is a model for change at the youth level. Cross Over emphasizes the important aspects of sports (teamwork, fun, learning, self-confidence) and provides a framework to maximize the talent and experience of every player from the recreational to the elite.