The Hierarchy of Needs in Youth Sports

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2013.

The recent publication of Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein’s The Sports Gene has spurred the age-old nature versus nurture debate in talent development, specifically sports. After five-plus years of the 10k-hour rule after the publication of Outliers and other books, Epstein has shown that there is no rule: Some athletes attain expert levels in far fewer than 10k hours, whereas some athletes take far longer. In Epstein’s view, this difference stems from training adaptations, and these often have a genetic component. Therefore, Epstein concluded that talent development is “100% nature and 100% nurture.” 

Epstein argued that there is no single athletic gene because there are too many factors involved in the development of talent. From a pragmatic viewpoint, when I conducted clinics in Africa and India, and children have asked about their comparison to basketball players in the United States, the comparison is unfair. How can a child walking around barefoot practicing twice per week with 40 other children and playing 10 games per season compare with an American teenager playing on two teams who spends 250 or more days per year in the gym practicing or playing games? Unless the African or Indian child is a fast learner who grows to near 7’0 tall, by the time he or she is 14 years old, he or she is so far behind the typical U.S. teen that closing the gap is nearly insurmountable. To a large extent, that is a deficiency of nurture that can be closed only by incredible nature (Epstein reports that height is nearly 80% genetic).

Whereas Epstein has added to the talent development lexicon and furthered the discussion, in many ways, not much has changed since Abraham Maslow presented his hierarchy of needs in 1943. If we view the top of the hierarchy (self-actualization) as the top of the talent development pyramid, we know that the four lesser needs must be filled prior to achieving one’s potential, as Maslow stated.Unknown

At the base of the pyramid is physiological needs such as health, food, and sleep. In terms of sports performance, a 2008 study by Gerlach et al. found that fat intake was the best predictor of future overuse injuries in female distance runners, as those with a lower total intake of fat and a lower percentage of their daily calories from fat were statistically more likely to be injured. Similarly, dehydration by as little as 2% of body weight impairs performance (Jeukendrup & Gleeson, 2009). A 2008 study by Mah et al. found that getting extra sleep over an extended period of time improves athletic performance, mood, and alertness, and a 2005 study by Van Cauter et al. found that sleep deprivation slows glucose metabolism by as much as 30%. To have a chance to move upward on the pyramid, these physiological needs must be met.

The next step on Maslow’s pyramid is safety, such as shelter and removal from danger. From a sports perspective, we know there are potential dangers, as coaches are arrested every year for inappropriate activities. The first step to meet this need is to insure that the environment is safe from predators. However, whereas we know when a coach crosses the line in terms of physically inappropriate actions, as my Introduction to Coaching class discussed this summer, the line for emotional or psychological abuse is far less distinct. When does a coach move from an emotional or intense coach to an abusive coach? After Rutgers University fired its men’s basketball coach last spring, some in the media suggested that his actions during games could be seen as abusive, but because of the way that we view sports, and coaches, he was viewed as emotional and fired up. Only through the lens of the videos of his physical and emotional abuse in practice settings did we view his game behaviors as potentially inappropriate; without that lens, he appeared to be like many other coaches.

Whereas there may be a thin line between motivation and abuse, crossing that line impedes the athlete’s development. As reported by Sarah Sparks in Education Week earlier this year, “high-stress environments in which students feel chronically unsafe and uncared for make it physically and emotionally harder for them to learn and more likely for them to act out or drop out.” If the talent-development process is essentially learning, these high-stress environments, whether classified as intense practices or abusive practices, negatively impact learning and consequently talent development (not to mention other potential negative psychological and emotional outcomes).

The old coaching adage that “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” rings true. Before an athlete can develop, he or she must feel safe, secure, and relatively stress free. These stressors do not only come from coaches, but parents often stress out athletes by consciously or subconsciously placing too much pressure on the athlete. As Carol Dweck explained in Mindset, the way that parents frame their words after a practice or game can affect the mindset that the child develops, and ultimately that can affect their improvement, learning, and enjoyment. As Dr. Dweck wrote, focusing on the outcomes (“Did you hit a home run?”) rather than the processes (“Do you have fun? Did you play hard?”) can lead a child to develop a fixed mindset, and the child may feel stressed to perform to be good in his or her parent’s eyes.

Once we meet the child’s physiological needs and create a safe environment, the next step on Maslow’s pyramid is belonging, which includes being a part of a group. This should be the easy part for sports, especially team sports. However, often the actions of teammates or coaches can affect one’s feelings of belonging or inclusion in the group. For instance, if a coach always bats a player last and plays the player in right field, he or she may feel less a part of the group. On some teams and at some levels, every player is not going to play, and certainly not every player is going to get repetitions at quarterback or pitcher. However, it is important that every player feels like a member of the group.

When the athlete does not feel like a true team member, it is a little like being the third wheel: Sure, you were invited and you are a part of the activity, but you feel like the others involved would prefer if you were not there. How does one develop his or her skills in this type of environment? One reason that I played everyone at the sub-varsity level when coaching high school basketball was to insure that each member of the team felt included. Initially, I did this to increase or improve team cohesion, but after one season of watching all the players, I realized that the expectation of playing, and consequently the feelings of being a real member of the team, enhanced everyone’s skill development. Nobody felt like the third wheel, and everyone felt as though they belonged, so it was easier for players to concentrate on their higher needs as their need for belonging was met, at least for the time of each team gathering throughout the season.

Once the child feels as though he or she belongs, the child can focus on esteem. Recent studies have suggested that the way that one thinks about him or herself affects her learning, which ultimately affects talent development. Weger and Loughnan (2012) set up a study to make one group believe that they knew the answer, and the other group did not (though neither group was shown the answer), and the group who believed it knew the answer performed better, attesting to the power of self-esteem or self-belief. Similarly, Langer et al. (2010) manipulated an eye chart and showed that people finished roughly the same number of letters on the eye chart even when the standard eye chart started with smaller letters; they expected to be able to read a certain number of letters, and they did, regardless of the size of the letters. When their expectations were manipulated, they could see better!

Dr. Dweck has shown repeatedly how a fixed mindset impedes learning, whereas a growth mindset improves learning. With a fixed mindset, one fears mistakes, as they are a sign of one’s lack of talent. However, with a growth mindset, mistakes are an opportunity to improve and are embraced. By teaching children to have a growth mindset, and by increasing their self-esteem, children can improve their learning and ultimately their talent development.

When this esteem need is met, the child can concentrate on achieving individual potential or self-actualization. With the other needs met, and impediments to learning removed, the child can play and practice and move towards the realization of one’s genetic potential. Not every child has the same genetic ceiling – as Epstein repeatedly points out in The Sports Gene, nobody is going to find a future NBA player among the Pygmies in Africa, as they top out at 5’0 tall. However, when one’s needs are met along the hierarchy, a child can work to maximize his or her genetic potential in his or her athletic pursuits.

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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