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

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Transition Time

iStock_000004316057MediumTransitions are a part of every sport. We go from offense to defense, sometimes by design and sometimes as the result of a turnover. The mountain biker or runner switches from uphill to down. Athletes who are good at transition, who handle it well stay in the game , have more fun and are often healthier.

The fall season has ended for a lot of the high school athletes we work with. Whether you are transitioning to a winter sport or looking ahead to the next club season here are a few things that might be helpful in the transition.

Ease into it. You’ve been training and competing six days a week for at least two months. Now is the time  to reduce the volume, and cut back the intensity. Stay active though. Continue to move in ways you enjoy. Hike, bike, switch to ultimate frisbee for a while, try yoga. Do your stretching. Approach the next few weeks like a long cool down rather a full stop.

Get healthy. This is about more than injuries. It’s about restoring the balance that gets lost over time when we are competing and training. Take an inventory. How’s your sleep, nutrition, social connections? Is there one that needs some attention? Pausing now to reset those things will help you heading into the next season. Flourishing is about resilience not endurance.

Reconnect. Relationships take time and energy. There’s only so much to go around during a season when you are part of a team. It’s natural for them to ebb and flow. Are there important relationships where the connection has worn a little thin lately? Now is a good time to reach out and renew those. One of the things those relationships do is remind us of who we are outside of our role as an athlete.

Reflect. Experience is a great teacher and sports offers some wonderful lessons but, only if we stop to reflect from time to time. What went well and why do you think it went well? Is there something you want to do better and how would  you do that?  Gratitude is a big one here too. Name three things you’re thankful for from this past season. Researchers have found that a sense of gratitude is a positive predictor of team satisfaction, life satisfaction and lower burnout for young athletes.  Write down your reflections. Getting it our of our head and onto the page is helpful. The old saying is “ink it, don’t think it.”  It can be helpful to share it as well. Taking time to reflect also helps us close the chapter on the last season so we can move forward to prepare for and enjoy the next one.

Plan. After a little time to relax, reconnect and reflect we can start to look forward. The best time to get clear about your goals and the steps you want to take to accomplish them is before the next season.

Take advantage of the moment. Just like a good transition in a game helps us move from offense to defense and back again, a good transition between seasons helps us move from one to the next ready to give our best and continue to grow and develop.

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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.

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A Stronger, More Flexible Approach For Our Soccer Girls

IMG_2913_2I’m struck by something Pediatrician, Dr. Lenna Liu wrote recently at On Being.

“As a yogi and an acrobat we practice the paradox of holding strength and softness at the same time. When we have structure we also have the capacity to expand and flow.”

That’s one of the challenges for youth sports and for those of us who work with developing young athletes; creating structures that develop their capacity to expand and flow – to unfold and discover their potential in healthy ways. Often youth sports feel chaotic; highly organized yet lacking a coherent structure that really serves the kids. Those of us who work with strength and conditioning can be just as much a part of the problem, encouraging kids and parents to add one more thing to the mix.  Camps, tournaments, league play and clinics, activity stacked on activity hoping something good will emerge. And, sometimes it does. It’s less about intention and focus though and more about the roll of the dice. A lot of potential is lost along the way.

Development CirclesThis summer we’re working with our U14-17 girls soccer athletes in a slightly different way creating a more personalized approach to their over all development and summer training. It’s based on our 4 Circle framework that helps us look at the overall development of the player. It’s also built on a structure that provides consistency and flexibility from session to session and week to week. Sessions will be designed weekly by the coaches and players, working together to look at schedules, goals and needs. If you stop by the gym or the field you could see six or eight players whose workouts or activity all look very different. There will also be days when we’re all on the same page or maybe we’re just playing a game of ultimate frisbee because recovery is the order of the day.

It’s a natural evolution and much of it comes from the way we’ve approached our work with our college players for the last few years. We’re fortunate to have a number of players who have been through our middle school or foundational programs and are ready for this next step. We’re excited to get going on it; to provide what, for us,will be a new structure we believe will serve our players better.

If you want to know more please contact us and we will fill you in. Click on the video below if you want to see how Dr. Liu is working to create structures that help address childhood obesity and diabetes. There’s also a short clip of what acro yoga looks like as well if you want to see what holding strength and softness looks like in action.  Oh, one last thing … acro yoga will not be part of our training … not yet.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/50392495″>Walk the Talk: People and Institutions Can Do It</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user710078″>Mapping Voices</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Train To Make Your Contribution

An important part of the training process is setting goals. A goal is simply the aim of an action. It answers the “so that” question.  I am doing this so that …. . I’m getting stronger so that I can hold my postion better. I’m developing my endurance so I can play harder longer.

We set goals to help with our personal development. Clear goals grounded in things that matter to us focus our attention, move us to action, help us stick to it, and challenge us to learn, adapt and grow as we meet challenges.  The process of setting individual goals provides both the ignition and fuel for our development.

In addition to our personal accomplishments there is a larger context for our effort that often gets lost or forgotten – CONTRIBUTION.  It’s another way to answer the “so that” question. I’m working to develop my potential so that … .  Personal accomplishment and mastery are important and necessary for our well being but if they are the only reasons we train or compete we are missing something vital.

Rather than asking only what we will get as a result of our hard work we can also ask what we will be able to give.   Imagine going to tryouts focused on making your biggest contribution to the process while you strive to give your best performance. There is a level of meaning that contribution provides that personal mastery and accomplishment don’t. We need a balance of all three.  So, another question to ask when we’re setting goals is, “What will developing your physical or technical abilities allow you to contribute?”  Every athlete knows that the fastest way to move the ball or the puck is with your teammates.

Soccer great Lionel Messi frames it this way: I prefer to win titles with the team ahead of individual awards or scoring more goals than anyone else. I’m more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world. When all this is over, what are you left with? When I retire, I hope I am remembered for being a decent guy.

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It’s OK To Take A Break

Tired AthleteThanksgiving is coming at the perfect time. For one of our older groups its the fourth week of a training cycle; typically an unloading week where we back off and allow the mind and body to catch up and adapt to the hard work we’ve done. Because of the holiday we have one day in the gym this week  and the kids have a technical session on the turf. That’s it… perfect!

Along with a change in routine we want the athletes – especially the younger ones – to understand why we back off and  begin to think in terms of stress and recovery. We want them to learn to follow that oscillating wave of intense challenge and deep rest and regeneration, to pay attention to it and work with it, not to try to overcome it.

Kristen Diffenbach, Ph.D. said in an article for Podium Sports Journal ” If you can’t recover from the training you do and you don’t have an environment set up that allows that to happen you’re not going to get stronger no matter how much work you do.”

Creating awareness and opening up new thinking are part of creating that kind of environment. So, along with lightening the load this week we also talked about recovery, why we’re doing this and how they can optimize it so that their bodies adapt to the work they have done. That’s why it was so encouraging after our last session  to see this in one of the player’s journals. ” Its ok to take a break.” IMG_0871

We live in an outcome driven society where ” big data ” allows us to measure and rank and compare constantly. We have to keep moving and producing so taking a break is often seen as weakness or at the very least just falling behind. It’s not. It’s an essential part of the balance that’s required for both health and performance.

So Thanksgiving is here. Time for all of us to pause, rest, reflect and take a break. Sleep late, eat well, enjoy time together  and alone. The holiday is coming at the perfect time.  “It’s okay to take a break.”

 

What Matters In Your Sports Culture?

If culture is the set of standards and values that guide an organization’s choices and actions then a challenge for all of us who work with young athletes or who support them is to be clear about what we value, what we think is important and what we’re wanting for them. Gaining that clarity takes time, effort and support in a culture that values speed over depth, places disproportionate value on short term gains and views challenges as obstacles to be removed or avoided rather than stepping stones or opportunities for growth.

034_34The realization that things take time, especially the development of human beings, is a hard one to come to in a culture that relies increasingly on technology to solve problems and provide quick, easy, convenient solutions. But, true growth, real development, the kind that can happen through our experience of athletics isn’t about solving problems or fixing things that are broken. It’s about transformation.

Transformation means that what we are on our way to becoming is not just a bigger version of who we are today. What we are on our way to becoming is not yet apparent. Transformation is about the development of potential and possibility. The swan isn’t apparent in the ugly duckling, the oak tree isn’t apparent in the acorn and the butterfly is nowhere to be found when we look at Acornthe caterpillar unless … we know better.  And, we do.

 

 

We are up to challenge. .  Canadian Sport for Life is implementing a model of Long Term Athletic Development providing resources and support for parents, coaches and players. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association is working hard to take the long view. In my area the folks at Breakaway AAA Hockey are totally focused on development and the results are impressive.

We can start by getting clear about what matters, about those values and standards.  Mike Robbins shares a story about a minor league baseball organization that asked coaches to introduce themselves not by trotting out their resumes but by talking about their most meaningful experience in baseball. It’s worth a listen ( the story starts at minute 15).  Taking some time to remember and ponder those meaningful experiences can help us see more of what matters to us and what’s really important in developing young people through athletics.