Eight Things I Learned This Year

calendarI’ve been working on a lot of professional development over the past year; attending more conferences and clinics,  doing more reading and taking part in a lot of webinars. It’s been great to hear the really big names and leaders in the field speak and in a few cases even sit down for an hour or two over coffee and pick their brain. The old adage holds true: The more I learn the more I realize how little I know.   A few things have emerged as consistent themes.

One – Keep it simple. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.” Working with the younger athletes constantly challenges me to get to the essence of the movement. Having to explain it simply to a 9 year old makes me a better coach with a high school or college player.

Two – It’s about how you move. It’s not about the exercise or drill or program. Can you start and stop, change speeds and directions? Can you push and pull, squat and lunge?  Can you jump and land? How long can you do those things efficiently and effectively in the environment you compete in.

Three – There is a hierachy to skills. Physical skills precede sports skills – always. Just like a pianist is limited if they can’t play their scales so is an athlete who can’t move well. The problem with your daughters jump shot may be that she can’t jump not that she can’t shoot. That doesn’t mean the young athlete shouldn’t shoot the ball anymore than the young musician shouldn’t play songs until they’ve mastered every scale. But, we can only build sports skills as far as physical skills allow.

Four – Work with the whole person.  I’m not coaching speed, or strength or agility or fitness. I am coaching a person who is trying to develop those characteristics and qualities to play or peform or stay healthy doing something they love to do. That person comes as a whole, not in pieces or parts. Mental, physical, spiritual, social, and I need to be aware of and pay attention to the whole. As one of the experts said, “If  you just broke up with your girlfriend it may not be the best day to throw at Nationals.”

Five – Everyone is a unique individual with their own optimal way of moving. Vern Gambetta calls it a movement fingerprint. Shawn Myszka calls it movement signature. Dan John says the same thing in another way when he says ” We were not all born to squat deep.”  When you realize we’re working with unique individuals who are each at a unique point in their development and unique moment in life – you see that one size can’t fit all.

Six – Make it athlete centered. The athlete is in charge of their own development even that 9 year old hockey player. They make the choices, do the work and get the results. As a coach I am a servant not a manager. I need to manage my choices actions and plans – and create an environment that’s both challenging and safe. An empowered athlete at any level makes intrinsic adjustments that expand their capacity to do more.

Seven – Have a framework. While they didn’t say it, I observed it. They all had a framework that they had developed over time that allowed them to focus their work with an athlete. They were not moving from trend to trend or fad to fad. And, both their humility and their curiosity keep those frameworks flexible and open. They are alive and evolving not fixed and set.

Eight – Be generous, humble and curious.  “I wonder what I’m not seeing that I don’t even know I’m not seeing”, one of them said to me. This coach has a Ph. D.  over  forty years of experience, consults internationally and is a former national coach of the year. His latest project was trying to shadow a physical therapist or a few months to see what he could learn about movement from that perspective.It’s comforting and inspiring to know that we’re all still learning and we’re all in it together.

I’m grateful for all the learning this past year and eager to discover more. I’m also eager to  build on it in our coaching as we go forward. Ain’t it great to be a work in progress.

Developing Potential In Young Athletes

Youth soccer skillsWhat is a player’s potential? It’s tempting to look at an athlete, especially a young one and think we know. The truth is we don’t. I can offer a relative opinion about how I think one athlete compares to another and where they might end up or what they might accomplish but, it’s based more on assumption than fact and even then only on the limited information I have in the moment. And because it’s limited it’s often also limiting. How much potential goes undeveloped because of premature judgements on the part of coaches, parents and players? Our thoughts about young players’ potential are often about their potential to fit into a scheme that we have – a position, a system, a style of play, a stereotype that we’re comfortable working with.

We’d like to think that human potential can be sized up like the potential energy in the water behind a dam. Problem is there’s  no way I can know or predict all the variables when it comes to a human being; especially one that’s still developing. It’s like trying to tell you how much energy is stored behind the dam without knowing how deep the water is. GIRL LACROSSE

The fun part of working with young athletes and watching them develop over time is DISCOVERING that potential, watching it unfold and being surprised and even delighted at the forms it takes.

The role of the coach, parent, administrator, is to create and sustain the environment where that  discovery and development can take place. Part of creating and sustaining that environment is building a framework that helps us see the big picture and that also helps us focus our time,energy and attention. I keep coming back to four areas or dimensions of development: Physical, Technical, Tactical and Mental. I think of them as four overlapping circles. Each one expands and / or limits the others. Physical elements such as speed, balance, strength, coordination enhance my technical skills. Those enhanced technical skills open up more tactical possibilities. The mental skills support or limit my performance in the other three areas but, as my other skills grow and I can play a bigger, faster game  it helps me grow those mental skills as well.

Development Circles

The key is the overlap. That’s where potential is discovered and developed. That diamond in the middle is what I bring to the field. Development with young players is about growing those  circles and as the circles grow so does the overlap;  that space in the center where potential emerges.

One of the obvious implications is that those of us who work with developing players need to be connected and collaborating. Without that collaboration we can lose sight of the big picture, limiting our own contribution and the contributions of others and in the end limiting the potential of the players we serve. A poor example of  teamwork. When we work together we maximize each other’s contribution and the opportunity for the discovery and development of players’ potential. And, like any team, we get to celebrate those moments when it all comes together, moments of surprise and delight when the whole truly is greater than the sum of it’s parts. IMG_2998