“It’s better to do something simple which is real. It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.” Bill Evans ~ Jazz Pianist
It’s a simple rule that bears repeating. We build on the basics. If I want to shoot a jump shot or spike a volleyball or make an explosive diving save in the goal I need to be able to flex and extend my hips, knees and ankles. I need to be able to squat, jump and land in a position to do it again. I need the physical movement skills to be able to maximize my technical skills.
It’s a lot of fun to watch a skilled athlete like Tobin Heath work magic with the ball.
And then it’s important to notice that a key element in the Women’s National Team camp is physical training.
It’s true of any sport at any level. We build on the basics, the simple, real things that provide a platform on which we create the advanced amazing stuff. Extending your physical capacity in any area – strength, speed, agility, fitness – opens ups more possibilities in your technical and tactical game in every sport. We love helping young athletes create possibilities for themselves and their teams.
Imagine 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.
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.
The 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.
Matt 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.
Competition 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.