Acorns and Building Blocks

When you think about development are you seeing acorns or building blocks? Sounds like a crazy question but the way we look at the process of developing an athlete, especially young athletes has a profound impact on both the process and the outcomes.

A colleague of mine, Mindy Hanson, and I have been working on a presentation for coaches. I had proposed that development is a process of unfolding rather than construction. Mindy’s taken the ball and run with it flushing out some of the important differences. As we apply it to our thinking around training and coaching its becoming clearer how those two approaches can take us in very different directions.

When we think of development in terms of unfolding we see a process of continual growth and adaptation. We start with the assumption that both the potential and the systems for realizing that potential are already there. Our role then is to understand and engage those systems in a way that not only helps the athlete realize their potential but supports the growth and health of the very systems that allow them to do that.

When we take an unfolding view we’re more likely to meet the athlete where they are and see assessments as ways to determine starting points instead of deficiencies. Training sessions are seen as small steps to elicit adaptations on a much longer journey to developing skills and capacity. And, as Mindy says, it’s leads to incredible plasticity, the ability to continue to adapt and grow as an athlete matures.

Mindy also points out construction is an entirely different process and approach. It begins with a fixed end in mind and follows a preset plan and concrete sequence to completion. It should because it’s goal is to build something with a fixed function in mind, like a building or a machine.  The goal is to create something that is perfectly replicable and even replaceable, functioning precisely as it’s supposed to every time. That’s exactly what I want with my house or my car. Not so much when it comes to people.

When we look at athletic development through the construction lens we start with concepts rather than people and use assessments to determine the deficient or missing parts. Then we start fixing and building, trying to gather the parts and assemble them. We can easily start trying to fit the player into the plan rather than developing a plan to fit the player. In the worst case if they aren’t fitting into the plan or performing that fixed function on the timeline they get set aside or replaced and the potential goes unrealized.    Those who do survive the construction  process are often athletes who are, as Steve Myrland says, “ adapted but not adaptable.”


Back to the acorns and building blocks. When I look at the acorn I know there’s a fifty foot oak tree right there if I can give it what it needs to grow and reach it’s potential. It’s about the unfolding. My role is to pay attention, learn and contribute.








When I look at a box of building blocks on the other hand, I see things I need to assemble or manipulate, usually to some end that I have in mind. My job is construction, make it into something useful.

Using the metaphors is like looking through a different set of lenses, a way to see more or see things we’re missing. I’d love to hear what you see as you consider them and where they take your thinking. Is there a different lens that helps  you frame your work and your role as a coach, parent or administrator?

One thought on “Acorns and Building Blocks

  1. Pingback: Taking The Long View « Kick-It! Training

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