The Ecology of Youth Sports

FLOURISH: ( of a person, animal or other living organism ) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.

iStock_000004353528Medium-1What if we thought about developing young people through athletics in terms of the ecology of it?

What if, rather than focusing on “producing” young athletes, we focused on how they grow?

We might pay more attention to the environment in which they grow. Is it one in which they can flourish? 

Research with high school age soccer players found that a young person’s well being in athletics was correlated with a high quality environment, one in which the young athlete felt that coaches were concerned about them as people first and athletes second. One in which the key adults were connected in a healthy network of support: school, club, coaches and parents. And, one that was focused on their long term development not short term or even intermediate term outcomes and results.
IMG_2998Ecology looks at, what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls ” the architecture of relationships.” Over the last few months I’ve been working in some new and interesting ways with coaches, parents and health care professionals and over the next month or two will be collaborating on some very cool projects. They didn’t start as “good ideas” but emerged out of conversations and the slower process of growing a relationship. Some of the projects will blossom and bear fruit, others will drop by the wayside. My hope is that the relationships out of which they are developing will continue to grow and flourish.

It’s really not that big of a stretch when you think about it. After all, success in every sport, even the individual ones, is a team effort. Or, as Dr. Wall Kimmerer reminds us, ” in nature all flourishing is mutual.”  DSCF1719

3 Reasons Why Physical Preparation and Development Matter

This post is by Davis Bates CPT, USAW, BS Exercise Science & Coaching. Davis works with a number of our groups and athletes including our high school girls soccer groups and some of our collegiate players. 

Development CirclesIn the world of athletic development today there seems to be a heavy emphasis on sport specific “technical” skills.  Your technical skills are an extremely important part of whatever sport you play, dribbling, passing, shooting, catching, etc. Without these skills an athlete will struggle to contribute to their team on the field, court, or ice.

But, even if you have a proficient level of technical skills for the level of competition you are playing, there is something even bigger that can hold you back from your ability to contribute to your team and realizing your potential. That is your Physical skills and here is why:

images-4Physical skills allow us to demonstrate our Technical skills.  If an athlete is fast, strong, powerful, agile, well-conditioned and injury resistant (i.e. Physical skills) they will be able to demonstrate all of their technical skills they have worked so hard to master. By being a better athlete, the player will be able to create more space from their defender, win more 50/50 balls/pucks, be stronger with the ball/puck, and demand more help from the opponents’ defense opening up scoring chances for other players.  Simply put the stronger and faster you are the more chance you will get to affect the game in your favor and contribute to your team.

Physically prepared athletes suffer from fewer injuries allowing them to stay on the field IMG_1173and play more aggressive.  It’s been said before that a good injury prevention program is simply a good physical training program. Meaning if an athlete, before and during the season, is working on jumping, running, changing direction with good mechanics, strength training through a full range of motion, and working on mobility, stability, and recovery they will be more prepared for the physical demands put on them throughout a long season.  This will allow them to stay healthy and to play pain free. Not only will this keep an athlete on the playing field longer but their time on the field will be much more enjoyable. They will be able to play the game the way they want to play it, without the hesitation caused by a nagging injury or aches and pains. They can have a full throttle, aggressive, first to the ball mentality.

SCOREBOARDPhysical skills allow you to play at your best when it matters most. Most athletes have the ability to be fast and agile early on in the competition but few are well-conditioned and proficient enough to demonstrate the same speed and agility in the final minutes of a game.  Athletes who have prepared for their season will find themselves able to play harder, longer into the game, more so than those who have not. Also, the better an athlete’s techniques while, running, jumping, and changing direction the less demand it will require from the body. In other words, and athlete becomes more “fuel efficient” as they become technically efficient, allowing them to have more gas in the tank for when it matters most.

As a coach, imagine your team having all the advantages that come with being a more physically prepared team.  Your team will be able to play faster and stronger throughout the duration of the game as well as being able to play more aggressively due to the new found confidence in your athletic ability.

As a player, imagine your best self on the field. What does that look like? Are you a player that is fast and strong on and off the ball? Are able to change direction one step quicker than your opponents?

Are you able to create space for yourself so you can showcase your technical skills? Now imagine your best self becoming a reality.  When you bring the physical, technical, tactical and mental skills together, you create the space where your “best self” can begin to emerge.

 

A Tool For Finding A Better Balance

Tired AthleteWe’re hearing a lot these days about how busy players, parents and coaches are … and how tired. They are feeling more stretched than focused and more stressed than productive. If that happens to you here’s something you can try.

One of the first things we do with our athletes is ask them to pay attention. For example, I f we’re learning to stop we ask them to notice where they land and finish on the foot – heel, mid-foot, whole foot? Before we ask them to fix, or change or adjust anything we simply ask them to notice.  A lot of self correction happens just by paying attention to the right things. Focus helps … a lot.

Here’s a simple tool for you. Its a framework we use with our players and in our own planning and preparation. We call it the Four Circles. It helps provide focus and balance when we’re working with athletes or coaches making choices about where to invest time and energy.

Development CirclesYou’ll see there are four overlapping circles. Each one expands and / or limits the others. In the physical circle are things like movement skills, balance, speed, strength, stamina, and general health. The technical circle is about sport skills, the technical skills you need to play or perform; shooting or dribbling for a basketball player or carving a turn for a skier. The tactical circle is how we apply and integrate those skills to play or compete. We go from passing and catching to running a give and go for example. It’s also about learning to see the game or race unfold and respond to it. The mental circle includes skills like relaxation, concentration, emotional regulation.  We could go into more detail, for example rest and recovery, sleep, nutrition and relaxation are part of the physical circle but , for now it’s enough to know that each of these elements influences the others.

Unknown-1Think of it this way, the problem with a player’s jump shot may not be the shot. If I can’t control my posture, squat, jump and land it doesn’t matter how good me release is.  The physical skills and qualities  are needed to support the technical.  They are all a part of an athlete’s development.

So now, here’s the task. Draw four columns on a piece of paper, one for each circle. Then just make a list of what you’re currently doing in each area. Don’t worry about what you should be doing or what other people are doing or what someone else says you need to be doing.  What are you or your players doing now? When you’re done listing it out, take a look. What are you noticing? Where is most of your effort going? What’s guiding those choices? Does the balance feel right?

This quick exercise might give you some insight and clarity. The purpose here is simply to get a picture of what’s happening. You don’t need to evaluate or judge it. Remember, a lot of self correction happens just by noticing.

This framework can be applied in a number of ways to help be intentional and focused with an athlete’s development. We use it with college athletes as well as middle schoolers. A healthy and effective approach to athletic development is focused, balanced and intentional.  If you’d like to know more check out our training programs or contact us.

A Formula For Success

IMG_2998Matt Cucarro offered some very helpful insights and advice this week in his post on Professional Sports Psychology Symposium. It’s a great read for parents, players and coaches of young athletes.  Cucarro points out how easy it is to let results become a distraction for developing athletes and actually undermine success by taking our focus away from the task at hand.

It’s a simple formula: Skills + Time = Results. As he points out,  “As skills are passionately pursued throughout a significant time frame, expert performance appears.”  Focusing more on wins and losses or other short term results undermines a development mindset and long term success.

Cucarro uses several helpful examples from his work with junior golfers:

Players don’t practice making birdies, they practice making smooth swings.

Golfers don’t practice shooting 4 under par, they practice staying target focused.

Golfers don’t practice getting recruited by a college or turning pro, they practice patience.

A recent study of 13 – 16 year old soccer players in Sweden found that young players not only understand this approach but value it. When asked to rate their training environments, the players identified High Quality, Low Quality and Moderate Quality environments. It was only in those environments that players identified as High Quality that they worked with their coaches to set performance goals that were monitored over time with a focus on the long term. Not only does it get better results. The study found that having a long term vision in their mind was essential for player well-being. And that well-being has a direct correlation in studies with other important stuff like longer participation and higher levels of performance.

Girl TennisCompetition has a place in a young athlete’s development. It is, as Cucarro points out, ” an opportunity to exhibit skills and test personal limits.” But, as an old mentor of mine used to say, ” just because something needs to be there doesn’t mean it is the biggest thing. It just means it needs to be there.” Along with Skills + Time = Results  maybe another simple formula can help as we put our programs together : Skill Development > Competition.

Taking the long view is challenging. It’s also where the good stuff is. Cuccaro sums it up with a helpful reminder, ” When skills continue to remain a top priority throughout training AND competition consistent results unfold.”  Take a minute to read the post. It’s good stuff for parents, coaches and everyone concerned  with young people thrive and flourish through sports.

Boy Basketball Large A

 

 

What The Players Teach

10703589_809219992434582_2475629147460294872_nWhen you work with high school players you end up saying good bye to most of them when they graduate. Some will continue in college and we get a chance to work together in the summer for a year or two. But most are wrapping up their formal competition. Last Fall a couple of our guys had the wonderful experience of winning a section championship and being major contributors on a team that went to the semi-finals of the State High School Tournament. Those aren’t the kinds of results  you can promise to anyone. Too many things have to happen that are beyond a player’s or coach’s control. But, they’re fun and rewarding when they do.

I’ve thought about them a lot over the last few months. For the past three years at this point we would have been shifting into the club season training mode and getting a glimpse at the results of some of the off season work. Neither one will be continuing in college so we aren’t training together this season. And, in their absence I have been reflecting on what I learned through my work with them. Of the many things a few stand out. Some are new,  but most are a renewed and deeper understanding of things that we as coaches know and sometimes forget. 10710964_809220049101243_1939075816997532939_n

1. They grow up … Someone once said the best way to help a thirteen year old jump higher is to let him turn 14. Young athletes are a work in progress, constantly maturing and developing. A big part of coaching them is to recognize and cooperate with that process and not get in the way.

2. Things happen in their own time… We get in our own way with “shoulds”, thinking someone should be able to do something or should be at a certain level. We worked on speed with small, steady improvements for a long time and then in what seemed like a day – the time dropped like a rock. The strength, power, mechanics all came together and I think they even surprised themselves.

3. The whole person is growing … These guys have not only matured physically, but mentally, emotionally and socially as well. Our training sessions more and more became conversations as their awareness of their body and their health grew and their capacity to communicate and reflect on those things did as well. This is the goal – to increase the capacity of the whole person not just their speed or strength.

4. Things take time … My mom told me that once and it’s one of the best pieces of advise I ever got. We laugh about where they were when they started and where they’ve come. They started as slow, skinny freshman who weren’t very strong. They didn’t go from 5.6 forties to 4.8 in six weeks. They showed up, worked hard and stayed with it.

5. There are no straight lines… some seasons everything seemed to unfold according to plan and the results were great. Other times, not so much. Injuries slowed them both down late last summer as they were finishing the club season and getting ready for high school. We adjusted, focused on getting healthy and trusted the big base they had already built would be there to draw on when the season started. It was.

6. They enrolled in the process not a program. This is huge because so often we look for a workout or a program to add or fix something. Development is the steady unfolding and discovery of potential. It is person centered and goal focused. It works the way growing anything works; organically, over time, with in a supportive climate. These guys were in it for the long haul, committed to making the journey and were lucky enough to arrive at a destination that none of us would have predicted when it began.

10447637_721141924639455_2724086173418762624_nThere’s a new batch, several actually, that are enrolled in the process. New stories and new process 10698593_721141371306177_4037564755071568874_nalready unfolding. Thanks to those seniors who allowed me to share and contribute to the journey. I will miss them. Good luck and come back often.

How Taylor Fixed The Squats

Hockey Player Turning on IceWe were walking from the gym to the rink with our hockey players last week after a dry-land session when Taylor Hardy, one of the assistants, told me he had noticed something. We had been working with some of the younger groups – 9 and 10 year olds – on getting in and out of an athletic postion, squatting and jumping. They were pretty good at finding an athletic position; hips, knees and ankles flexed, chest up, back straight. Squatting though was a problem. Lots of bending at the waist, heels off the ground, heads down. The typical stuff.

But, Taylor noticed that when they jumped they came down in a good position and from there it was only a few more inches to the squat. We had also had success teaching the young players by emphasizing the eccentric motion, lowering themselves slowly over three counts rather than trying to get down quickly.  (everything nine and ten year olds do they want to do fast)

Taylor experimented with putting those things together. Have the kids get into their athletic position, squat jump, land in position and then lower themselves into a squat.

It worked. It didn’t get everyone into a perfect position but it got most of them there or much closer. And, it was a more athletic way, a more natural way to get there.

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Two things stood out:

1. The body has a way it wants to work. That’s going to be a little different for each of us but there is a wisdom to it and if we take a moment, pay attention and work with it we can often get a better result than when we take a diagnostic / prescriptive approach to developing physical literacy with young athletes.

2. Creativity is key. Steve Jobs had a quote about creativity that made a lot of sense to me.

” Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

While Jobs was talking about the computer industry he could have been talking about coaches. We can get pretty linear.  What Taylor did was notice some things and put them together in a way that got us better results. He noticed the dots and saw a different way to connect them. Others have probably discovered the same thing but for us, it was out of the box,  outside the frame we were looking at.

What dots are you seeing that aren’t connected that might be. How can you expand your vision, see more of the dots? How much time do you spend noticing and thinking about what you are seeing?  Food for thought. Have fun playing with the dots. And, way to go Taylor!

The Power And Benefits Of A Goal

IMG_0650Are you helping the athletes you work with set goals? If not you might be missing an important opportunity. A paper from Robert Weinberg at Miami University of Ohio looks at the research surrounding goal setting in sports and some practical ways to do it. It’s worth the read. You can check it out here.

What caught my attention were the benefits he listed.

Players who focus on process or performance goals experience

1. Less anxiety

2. More confidence

3. Greater satisfaction and concentration

4. Improved performance

According to Weinberg the research shows that goals are effective because

1. They direct and focus our attention

2.They help us mobilize effort

3. They enhance our persistence – help us stick to it

4. We develop new learning strategies – we learn to adjust, adapt and make progress

Too often in youth sports we either assume the goals are apparent and that every kid wants the same thing or we just assign them to the players. We’re missing a great opportunity. A goal is really just the aim of an action. It’s easy to generate lots of activity. But without an aim it’s unlikely I’ll hit the target. Helping players set goals empowers them by teaching them how to chose their target, set their sights, take their best shot, and then learn, adjust and stick to it. I think we call those life lessons.

I’ve started taking a deeper dive into the goal setting process with our 15 – 20 year old athletes and here is what I’m finding. What’s good for the players is good for me as a coach.  I experience the same benefits: less anxiety, more confidence, greater satisfaction and focus and I do a better job of helping them meet their goals.  In addition, clear goals are helping me zero in, increase my energy,  be patient with the process and be more creative in adapting to new challenges. That seems good because one of my goals is always to become a better coach.

As the Masters is upon us here is a glimpse into the power of a goal.