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.
What 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.
Ecology 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.”
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.
In 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:
Physical 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 and 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.
Physical 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.
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.
We’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.
You’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.
Think 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.
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.
“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.
This 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>.</p>