Altitude or Trajectory When It Comes To Young Athletes?

ThinkingImagine there are two airplanes. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon.  One is flying at 10,000 feet, the other at 5,000. Which one do you want to ride on? ……. Too soon to know? You might want to know where they’re going. Are they climbing or descending? How fast are they going? That one measurement, the altitude in a single moment, doesn’t tell you much. You need to know where they’re headed over time. You want to know … the trajectory.

When we work with developing athletes in middle school and even high school though, we often forget that they, like those airplanes, are bodies in motion. Each one has a unique trajectory; starting in different places and maturing at different rates. Trying to determine where they’re going to land or end up at any single point along the way is crazy, like trying to pick the flight you want based only on where the planes where at 2:00 in the afternoon.
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That’s why we need to take a more personalized and long term approach to developing young athletes if we want them to enjoy the lifelong benefits of sport and develop their true potential. A recent two year study published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research looked at a group of 13-15 year old youth rugby players over two years. The researchers  found that not only do physical and performance trajectories vary between players, but those individual trajectories change over time. In other words the kids at the top of the curve now may be closer to their peak and improving at a slower rate than a player who was smaller, slower or less skilled when they both started. It’s not unusual at all for so called “late bloomers” to come on strong later and pass their faster maturing team mates.

MSGirlsSoccerThe study recommended a few things. First, take  a long term approach to developing young athletes. You simply can’t know where a kid will land at 17 when they’re 12. Second,they recommend a de-emphasis on performance in adolescence. Unless your end goal is to dominate other 13 year olds, winning is not a good indicator of who will be successful later on and emphasizing it takes the focus off of development for everyone including the current top performers. Plenty of kids show up at the next level short on skills or athletic fundamentals because the emphasis was on racking up age group tournament wins.  Finally, avoid de-selection early on. The pyramid approach that eliminates kids along the way is not productive or useful whether your main goal is long term participation or sustained excellence at higher levels. Think of it this way – if you want a high school dynasty, then having to choose which ten athletes to play from 30 excellent ones in your program is a  much better challenge to deal with than trying to hold together the 10 kids you picked out as eighth graders.

We have so many stories of late bloomers who surprised us that the term has become more the rule than the exception. Every kid blooms in their own time. Our goal is to support them in that process beginning with our middle school boys and girls all the way through. Because once you take off you never know where you might land.

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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>

 


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!


Steering A Better Course For Young Athletes

images-4I was having dinner with an old college football friend a few weeks ago. One of his daughters played and is now coaching at the Division 1 level in college. A second daughter is in the middle of the process of making choices about where to continue in her sport after high school. She’s just a sophomore. It’s an intense experience. He shared that when his first one went through it he tried to resist some of the pressure in the process and keep it sane and healthy. In the time between them things have changed, the process is even more intense and he feels more like he’s being pulled along in the wake of some enormous ship doing his best to keep up. The question keeps coming up, who’s got the kid’s best interest at heart?

I came  across an interview with sports performance coach Kristen Dieffenbach in the Frazier Cycling Newsletter last week. It was an insightful and helpful look at the process of athletic development and working with teenage athletes. Dieffenbach who is also a professor at West Virginia University makes  a number of strong points. And, while the interview was about development in the world of junior cycling her conclusions apply to any sport. Here are a few  things that stood out.

1. Our current models of development for junior athletes ( 15 – 20 years old ) too often functions on what she calls, “a faulty adult model of sport that is about dollars/achievement and not about true development, improvement and enjoyment.”

2. As she points out about her own sport of cycling, ” the irony of this is that true talent development actually will foster a system that will also allow for more young riders to do extremely well in racing.” It’s true in any sport whether it’s basketball, soccer or hockey. The guys at Breakaway AAA Hockey in Minnesota are proving this on a regular basis

3. Real development focuses on fostering the total individual psychological, physical and social growth of young men and women in a way that helps them become the best they can be both now and in the future, in whatever they choose to pursue. It’s about the whole person, not just their role as a competitor or athlete.

4.The emphasis in many programs is on immediate outcomes and elite teenage athletes ( which is a bit of an oxymoron as Dieffenbach points out). We look for the next champion or D1 player rather than trying to develop potential.  As she says, ” Trying to find the random talented needle in the junior athlete haystack is a poor and ineffective use of resources ( not to mention a poor indication of adult potential in many cases.)”

Dieffenbach offers some ideas that might help those of us who are coaching or in leadership think differently and change the model.

1. If you are going to coach teenagers ” know that you ARE taking the responsibility to be part of a young person’s holistic development whether you like it or not.”

2. Take the responsibility seriously and learn about the ways a coach can help ( or hurt ) the growth and development of a young person, not only into a good athlete but more into a quality person.

3. As a coach or director skip the self promotion; the “come race, or play or train with us” as the first area of interest. Put the young person first. Ask yourself, ” Are you only interested in those who show “podium” or “elite” potential? Is that your only view of development?”

IMG_3016I found the interview helpful and I encourage you to read it here. It’s short and well worth a few minutes of your time. An athletes’ development is an unfolding process circling around regularly to the fundamentals and basics. A coach’s development isn’t any different. It’s good to reminded of what’s important and challenged to look at how we’re applying it. Just like my friend it’s easy to get pulled along by the current. Dieffenbach’s thoughts might help us get our paddle in the water and steer a different course.


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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Trust The Players And The Process

I found myself frustrated at the end of a training session last week. The session didn’t go the way I had planned it. The players were struggling to learn new movements.The energy level was low and their focus was a little off. I couldn’t fault the effort but the results weren’t what I was expecting.

The group came back at the next session and it was completely different. Technique and mechanics started to come together. Energy was high, and the things we had worked on for a few sessions started to seem like second nature

IMG_0710Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.- Emerson

The process of planning is essential… andpeople are always bigger than the plans we make for them.  An athlete’s development is a natural process not a mechanical one. It’s about unfolding and growth, not construction. I was reminded again last week that when I find myself frustrated by the pace of things, or because they aren’t working according to my plan it’s good to pause, allow a little space and be patient. We create the environment, provide the stimulus and trust the process and the player. New growth happens when the time is right not because we put it in the schedule.

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Growing Confidence

DSCF1217Most of the time we think of training as mainly a physical process. It’s something  we do to develop a skill or quality like speed or strength or passing and shooting. There’s another aspect we often overlook or undervalue. Preparation and training contribute mentally as well because they give us confidence.

A source of great anxiety for a lot of high school players going on to college is the fitness test that they get in their packet from their new school.   While we don’t “train to the test” we will run it with players regularly to help them see how their work is paying off. It may not be an ideal part of our training program but by the time they head to their teams they have already demonstrated repeatedly they can meet the standard. That allows them to show up with confidence and focus on their game rather than the test.

GIRLS SOCCERWe work on deceleration and stopping as well as speed and acceleration because when a player has confidence in their brakes, they can play faster, go harder and put more pressure on their opponent. Without that confidence they may pull up too quickly, afraid to over run, leaving their opponent with more time and space.

 

IMG_0650A Bigger Kind Of Confidence – Part of the value in assessments and training logs lies in helping a player track their own growth and development.  With time to reflect, they come to have confidence in their ability to accomplish results over time, to make changes and develop what Stanford Psychologist and Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.  That mindset is more important in the long run than any physical quality. When they hit a plateau or struggle with something new they can draw on the confidence they’ve developed in themselves and in the process of training.  Focus, intentional work and consistency have helped them thus far and will help them with new challenges as well.

Slowly, in little ways, over time, good training and the right atmosphere can help us develop not only the physical qualities we need to compete but the confidence in our capacity to grow that will serve us whenever we need it.

In his Wheel of Excellence model, sports psychologist Terry Orlicki says, “Belief in yourself and confidence in your capacity allows you to extend your limits, create your own opportunities and push through performance barriers. Where there is unwavering belief in your capacity to carry out a mission and absolute connection with your performance, doors are opened to excellence.”

This week as we wrap up our fall training with assessments we will ask our young players to notice their progress, look back at the effort they have put in and begin to see that those doors can open little by little, for all of us.

Only one opportunity to success concept