The Importance of a Long Term Athlete Development Approach

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2012.

When I coached a professional women’s basketball team in Sweden, I assisted my best player with her u15 girls team. When I returned to the States after the season, I assisted an u14 girls’ AAU team. The teams were vastly different. The U.S. team was bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled. The team went to AAU Nationals and finished pretty well, top 12 if I remember correctly. They were a good team, and the core of the team had been together for several years and attended the same school.

The Swedish team differed. While every girl attended the same school (there was only one high school on the island), they had not played together for long. One of the better players had played for little more than a year. Even though they had an older chronological age, they had a younger biological age: the U.S. girls were more physically mature.

While the U.S. team had one outlier (a McDonald’s All-American who played only one season with that team), by the time the girls were 18 and 19, those who were playing were not that different in terms of skills. By 18, the Swedish players had matured, and the U.S. players no longer had a visible physical advantage. The respective mean ability for the two groups was similar.

The initial differences can be explained by early specialization and physical maturity. Only one U.S. player played multiple sports, and the coach rarely played her, while most of the Swedish players played or had played soccer, and one of the best players was also an elite age-group shot putter. The U.S. players had played far more basketball, practiced more, and played more competitive games by 14 than the Swedish players had by 15 years of age, and this early experience explains much of the initial variance in their respective talent levels. However, after 3-4 years of playing basketball, most of this variance disappeared: some Swedish players really improved and were good players, while some never developed into great players or quit, just as some of the U.S. players eventually played in college, while others were not good enough or quit for various reasons.

This scenario plays out throughout the U.S. at the local levels. However, the Swedish players were luckier than many of their U.S. peers, as they developed without the knowledge of or comparison to the better U.S. players. The better U.S. players did not affect their development, and consequently they had an opportunity to catch up to the U.S. players.

At the local level in the U.S., groups affect each other. Imagine a small town has 100 3rd-grade girls interested in basketball. All 100 sign up for a local YMCA league. The league has 10 teams of 10 players with parents volunteering as coaches. Each team plays 10 games with a mini-tournament at the end to determine the champion. This is the traditional way that many children are introduced to organized team sports.

Of those 100 players, some will be good, and others will be bad. The good players in 3rd grade are typically the tallest, fastest, or strongest players. Occasionally a couple players will have some experience, often due to an older sibling, and these players will start with slightly better understanding and greater skills than the true beginners.

Inevitably, the parents of a couple of the standouts will get together. They may scheme a way to play together during the following season to ensure their daughters have success or they may decide that their daughters are too good for this level and need more competition. Just as with the Swedish and U.S. players, the primary differences at this point are physical maturity and prior experience. However, the parents, and maybe a coach, misread maturity and prior experience as Talent. Since they believe their daughters are talented, they do not want to be held behind by the pedestrian players. These parents form an Elite team.

The elite team plays in tournaments and travels to play other elite teams. Other parents want to join the Elite; nobody wants to be pedestrian. The elite team holds a tryout and chooses 12 players from the original 100 (unless it was able to recruit some other elite players from a neighboring town). With 12 players now identified as elite, what happens to the others?

Some players likely quit because they did not play much or their coach emphasized winning too much; others may have tried out for the elite team and quit after being cut; some will continue in the YMCA league. Imagine 20 girls quit basketball; that leaves 12 players on the elite team and 68 girls playing in the YMCA as 4th graders.

If you look at this sample as evidence of the importance of early specialization, the argument is persuasive. Imagine the original 100 players were ranked 1-100 with 1 being the best and 100 being the worst. In 4th grade, the mean rank of the girls playing on the elite team is likely in the single digits; after all, they formed the team with the league’s best players and held a tryout. Meanwhile, the YMCA’s mean for player ranking is in the high 40s or 50s. Even if the worst 20 players (81-100) quit, the YMCA also lost 12 high-ranking players. At this point, being on the elite team has had no effect on the players’ talent or development. However, if looking at the elite team vs. the YMCA league as a parent at the beginning of 4th grade, the two appear very uneven, and somehow this unevenness is attributed to playing on the elite team rather than the players’ experience and physical maturity.

The elite team is more competitive than the average YMCA team, and people notice. Suddenly, parents in the YMCA league fear that their daughters are falling behind by not playing with an elite team. Some of these worried parents have their daughters try out for the elite team. One or two may make the team, replacing one of the original elite who falls out of the competitive stream. Those who fail to make the elite team join together to form the semi-elite team to help their daughters “catch up.” At this point, the difference between the elite and the semi-elite is physical maturity, experience and one season of playing on an elite team. However, all the difference is attributed to that one season. Suddenly, the YMCA is almost irrelevant, as 12 girls left for the semi-elite team and another 10 or more girls quit basketball because of the coach or to play soccer or for some other reason, leaving around 48 players, sufficient for six teams of eight players.

If looking at the mean player rankings (still based on the 3rd grade rankings), the elite team remains in single digits, the semi-elite is in the high teens and the YMCA has dropped even further with the departure of 12 more highly rated players. Simply looking at the numbers at the end of each year, it appears that the elite players are much better than the recreational players, and the recreational league is worsening. However, this ignores the fact that all the numbers are based on the initial season. The difference between the three groups has nothing to do with coaching, skill development, competition, etc., but is entirely due to physical differences and potentially differences in experience and rate of learning. The fallacy is that the elite team caused the difference.

For one to suggest that an elite team caused the difference, the elite team would have to take 10 players initially whose mean ranking was around 50 and elevate that ranking over time. If we randomly selected 10 players from the YMCA to join an elite team, for the elite team to have had an effect, when the players were rated 2 years in the future, the mean of the elite team ranking would have to  improve significantly more than the ranking of the players in the YMCA.

That’s not how it works. The club programs select the best players, and then claim that their team is better than an average team. Of course it is. Furthermore, the YMCA players and the semi-elite team are not left alone to develop at their own rate. They are in the same town, and ultimately, the teams and players are compared to the elite players. Many players lose motivation and quit because of the comparison, as it becomes obvious that they are not good enough. However, is it obvious?

At 15 years of age, none of our Swedish players would have made the u14 team in the U.S. They were a year older chronologically, but already lagging behind in talent. If they were in the same town, not in different countries, the Swedish players likely would have been cut or quit on their own by 15 years of age due to the comparisons with the U.S. team and players. Instead, because they were allowed to develop on their own without the comparisons, the team as seniors in high school (they were the same grade in school, as Sweden starts school a year later than in the U.S.) would have been close to 50/50, maybe 7 U.S. players and 5 Swedish players.

These players who trailed at the beginning of high school due to differences in physical maturity and experience closed the gap by the end of high school when allowed to develop independently. Unfortunately, children in the U.S. are not afforded this opportunity for independent development, so many children get lost in the competitive stream or quit because of the comparisons or the perceptions rather than giving themselves the opportunity to mature physically and gain experience. At 9 years-old, one season of playing experience is a big advantage; at 18 years-old, having played 10 seasons versus nine seasons is inconsequential. However, that perception that forms at 9 years-old is often hard to recover.

This is how the myth of early specialization was created and how it persists. The problem is the comparative nature of the youth sports, and the perceptions that it creates. Certainly over the nine years from 3rd grade to 12th grade, there is a coaching effect, competition effect, teammate effect, and more that impacts one’s development. However, it is often the stigma of early perceptions that either push forward or hold back a player.

A player does not need to be the best player in 3rd grade to be the best player in 12th grade. As the Swedish example demonstrates, late developers and multi-sport athletes can catch up over time, and the top players at 14 are not necessarily the top players at 18.

One primary purpose of a Long Term Athlete Development plan (Balyi, 2004) is to give these players the opportunity to develop over time and not allow the initial differences at 9 years-old to make decisions about who will be the best at 18 years of age. Shifting the philosophy at 9 years-old toward development and away from designating the elite ultimately assists all players, not just the weaker players, as it encourages a broader foundation, which will help the better players overcome the early plateau or peak in performance that afflicts many of the so-called elite.

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