When you work with high school players you end up saying good bye to most of them when they graduate. Some will continue in college and we get a chance to work together in the summer for a year or two. But most are wrapping up their formal competition. Last Fall a couple of our guys had the wonderful experience of winning a section championship and being major contributors on a team that went to the semi-finals of the State High School Tournament. Those aren’t the kinds of results you can promise to anyone. Too many things have to happen that are beyond a player’s or coach’s control. But, they’re fun and rewarding when they do.
I’ve thought about them a lot over the last few months. For the past three years at this point we would have been shifting into the club season training mode and getting a glimpse at the results of some of the off season work. Neither one will be continuing in college so we aren’t training together this season. And, in their absence I have been reflecting on what I learned through my work with them. Of the many things a few stand out. Some are new, but most are a renewed and deeper understanding of things that we as coaches know and sometimes forget.
1. They grow up … Someone once said the best way to help a thirteen year old jump higher is to let him turn 14. Young athletes are a work in progress, constantly maturing and developing. A big part of coaching them is to recognize and cooperate with that process and not get in the way.
2. Things happen in their own time… We get in our own way with “shoulds”, thinking someone should be able to do something or should be at a certain level. We worked on speed with small, steady improvements for a long time and then in what seemed like a day – the time dropped like a rock. The strength, power, mechanics all came together and I think they even surprised themselves.
3. The whole person is growing … These guys have not only matured physically, but mentally, emotionally and socially as well. Our training sessions more and more became conversations as their awareness of their body and their health grew and their capacity to communicate and reflect on those things did as well. This is the goal – to increase the capacity of the whole person not just their speed or strength.
4. Things take time … My mom told me that once and it’s one of the best pieces of advise I ever got. We laugh about where they were when they started and where they’ve come. They started as slow, skinny freshman who weren’t very strong. They didn’t go from 5.6 forties to 4.8 in six weeks. They showed up, worked hard and stayed with it.
5. There are no straight lines… some seasons everything seemed to unfold according to plan and the results were great. Other times, not so much. Injuries slowed them both down late last summer as they were finishing the club season and getting ready for high school. We adjusted, focused on getting healthy and trusted the big base they had already built would be there to draw on when the season started. It was.
6. They enrolled in the process not a program. This is huge because so often we look for a workout or a program to add or fix something. Development is the steady unfolding and discovery of potential. It is person centered and goal focused. It works the way growing anything works; organically, over time, with in a supportive climate. These guys were in it for the long haul, committed to making the journey and were lucky enough to arrive at a destination that none of us would have predicted when it began.
There’s a new batch, several actually, that are enrolled in the process. New stories and new process already unfolding. Thanks to those seniors who allowed me to share and contribute to the journey. I will miss them. Good luck and come back often.
Seasons change. We’re in the midst of a seasonal change here in the “north country” ; somewhere between fall and winter. Dates on the calendar are only a rough guide. You really have to go by what you see and feel. Trust me, if the thermometer said 20° next week and there were six inches of snow on the ground it would no longer be fall. The same is true when it comes to developing young athletes. Age or grade or competitive level or past performance give us a rough idea of where people are but when we’re actually working with players we have to work with what’s really there and what they’re capable of here and now.
Certain aspects of development, like seasons, are pretty reliable and predicable. The big maple outside my window is going to turn bright orange and red sometime between the end of September and the middle of October each year. But it wont be the same every year because it’s not the same tree and it’s not the same weather or exactly the same environment. It’s growing, getting bigger, maybe it’s struggling against a drought or damage from a storm or it had a perfect summer of sun and rain.
It’s like that with these young athletes too. They’re coming back for another cycle in their development but they’re not the same athlete they were last winter or spring or even at the start of the fall. They’re maturing and developing physically, mentally, socially. They may be healthier than they’ve ever been or dealing with an injury or illness. Their last season may have been a tremendous success or a real struggle. Same person and yet … not the same.
I’m especially mindful of it because yesterday I had a nice conversation with one the players who played his last college game on Saturday. We’ve worked together since he was a freshman in high school and it’s been such a blessing to watch him develop as a person and an athlete. Then as soon as we got off the phone I started with a new group of U12 soccer girls. That’s a big jump.
So one season’s ending. Another one’s starting. Next week we jump back in with four new groups of high school soccer and lacrosse players. It’s going to be great. Some of them will be new – most will be returning. Either way it’s a brand new season. We’re building on the past and yet it’s a fresh start. Pretty cool when you think about it. Can’t wait for Monday!
This sculpture sits outside the Imig Music Building on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder. For a musician the words serve as a direction; “little by little” or “gradually”, as in crescendo poco a poco. But, they also serve as a reminder of how progress is made, how we get better, how we achieve our goals, little by little.
Psychologists like Anders Ericcson and neuroscientists like George Bartzokis and Doug Fields are helping us understand the role of practice in getting really good at something. Ericcson’s work revealed that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in anything. Bartzokis’ and Fields’ work is helping us understand the process of myelinaton and just what happens with the brain during that deliberate practice and why it matters more than what we might think of as “natural ability.”
Becoming great at anything whether it’s the saxophone or soccer, playing the cello or shooting guard is a process. It takes time. It is about having a clear picture of what you want, trying something, paying attention, noticing what works, what doesn’t and then adjusting. Dozens or hundreds or thousands of little fixes to get it closer to what you want until, little by little, poco a poco, you start to get it.
Achieving that high level of performance, or just getting really good at something takes time and effort. Which is why its important to focus on the process more than the outcome. They’re both important. The results tell us what to fix, where to adjust, and if we’re moving in the direction we want. It’s the process though that produces the results.
The good news here is that if you know what you want, you’re willing to do the work and you have the passion and patience to stay with it, time is on your side. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, describes it in terms of a baby learning to walk. He says, “ It’s the feeling, in short, of being a staggering baby, of intently, clumsily lurching toward a goal and toppling over. Its a wobbly, discomfiting sensation that any sensible person would instinctively seek to avoid.” It’s not easy. Run quickly away from anyone who tells you it is. But, if you stay with it, keep adjusting , keep reaching, little by little, poco a poco you can get there.