Does Focusing on a Single Sport at an Early Age Boost a Child’s Chances for Future Success in that Sport?
Steve Boyle is co-founder and director of 2-4-1 Sports, a nationally acclaimed sport-sampling program that provides children the opportunity to play multiple sports at its camps held around the country.
Steve describes the benefits of sport sampling and physical literacy, and ways youth coaches and parents can help children develop the ability, confidence, and desire to play sports that interest them. Steve promotes a Long-Term Athlete Development approach that encourages multi-sport participation and life-long involvement. He also talks about the CARE Path to Success, how he views competitive integrity, and the college basketball coach he believes exemplifies that The Way You Win Matters®.
Chuck Wilson on Sports™ features professional and amateur coaches, athletes, officials, and others, sharing insight and perspective from the playing field while discussing issues that impact the game.
Chuck Wilson on Sports and Peer Into Character® podcasts for youth and adults are presentations of Even Field®, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization cultivating integrity, life skills, and leadership, through sports.
Even Field founder and series host Chuck Wilson has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America” by The Institute for International Sport.
You can watch a video version of this conversation on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.
Episode Quotes, an Audio Timeline, and an Episode Transcript can be found below.
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This Chuck Wilson on Sports™ Episode
- Written and Produced by…Chuck Wilson
- Post-production Editing and Graphics by Chris Gemma
- Narration and Theme music by Patrick Rundblad licenced through PremiumBeat.com
Our thanks to Professor Mike Davis and his Digital Production class at New England Institute of Technology for the recording of this interview. The recording took place at New England Tech’s East Greenwich, Rhode Island campus.
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Episode Quotes from Steve Boyle of 2-4-1 Sports
On starting for an NCAA Division 1 basketball program despite having once been just the ninth-best player on an average high school freshman team.
“Today, that would just never happen because that ninth-best player would feel so demoted and not have an opportunity to then go do the things that I did which was, play for hours and hours and hours by myself to get better. No one taught me, I just sort of did it. And we don’t give kids the opportunity to do that…If I was in that generation, I wouldn’t have made the AAU team…and so I would have just moved on to cross country or soccer or something else.”
On introducing new sports to kids
“When we do trainings with our coaches, we’re always trying to hook that kid that sees themselves as a soccer-only person or a basketball-only person. So that when you’re teaching something like fencing or you’re teaching something like lacrosse, you can help them see how the skill of the sport they know, directly applies to the one they don’t. Because, for a lot of kids, it’s just fear, right. They’re like, “Well, what if I stink at it? Or what if I don’t know the rules? Or what if I look silly?…(then) they have that Aha moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is exactly the way I play basketball. And so when you can do that in a sampling program in a week or two, you can then get kids hooked to be able to say, “Hey, I think I’m going to try out for field hockey.” That was really fun. And now I’m not afraid to try out because I know the rules.”
Steve Boyle believes we should re-think what we choose to value as youth coaches.
“What we’ve created in sports sometimes are performers, we’ve created dancers. I saw it all the time when I was coaching high school soccer. We always kept the kids that could juggle 74 times. But you never juggle in a real soccer game. I’d rather get the kid who’s going to run after the ball that’s going out of bounds and save it as if their whole life depends on it. That’s who I want.”
Physical Literacy provides kids with input and ownership of some of their choices.
“I think it’s about creating opportunities for kids to develop genuine confidence and have their own desire, not parental desire. It has to, otherwise, you’re going to lose them…They’re going to turn 13 and they’re going to say, “Are you kidding me? I’ve only been doing this because you told me I was good at it. And you told me I like it. I don’t like it that much.” But if you can get them to own the “desire” piece of it, that’s where the magic is.”
Episode Audio Timeline
• The “why” and backstory of 2-4-1 Sports (1:58)
• The philosophy of 2-4-1 Sports (5:12)
• The culture of the 2-4-1 Sports model (6:13)
• We aren’t allowing kids the chance to improve on their own (7:56)
• On being told he could never play Division 1 basketball (10:18)
• Sports programs for children should not be cutting players (11:10)
• Early specialization does not benefit most kids in most sports (15:16)
• How sport-sampling works in the 2-4-1 Sports model (16:30)
• The skill of the sport kids know, directly applies to the one they don’t (17:35)
• The importance of 2-4-1 Sports coaches participating with the kids (19:32)
• We often emphasize the wrong skills when choosing teams (20:40)
• On stopping play to tell kids what they are doing wrong (23:38)
• Physical Literacy definition (26:07)
• All kids should be “movement” kids (27:52)
• Kids need to “own” some of their choices (29:20)
• on controlling anxiety (31:27)
• On evaluating how well you have coached kids (33:04)
• The CARE Path to Success (35:28)
• On using coaching mistakes as character education (38:30)
• On competitive integrity (40:59
• What “The Way You Win Matters means to him (44:22)
Episode Audio Transcript
Does playing a Single Sport at an Early Age Boost a Child’s Chances for Future Success in that Sport?
Research shows that waiting until after puberty to specialize in a single sport improves overall athleticism and increases a child’s potential for future athletic achievement. Multi-sport athletes have fewer injuries. They experience less burnout. They adapt to team change more easily and often are viewed as more coachable. And on average, they play longer than single-sport athletes.
Our guest today is Steve Boyle, co-founder and director of Connecticut-based 2-4-1 Sports, a widely-acclaimed program that engages children through multi-sport camps held around the country.
The Aspen Institute’s highly-regarded Project Play initiative honored 2-4-1 Sports as one of 8 national models in the U.S. for sport-sampling. And, 2-4-1 Sports twice has been recognized by Hartford Magazine as one of Connecticut’s top summer programs.
Steve, and his wife Kerry, co-founded 2-4-1 Sports.
Both are former Division 1 athletes. Steve, as a walk-on basketball player at Manhattan College. Steve has coached soccer and basketball. He also is Advisory Board Chair for the National Association of Physical Literacy.
Chuck began the conversation with Steve Boyle by asking him about the “why” and the backstory of 2-4-1 Sports.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Steve Boyle: interviewee
Chuck Wilson: interviewer
Steve Boyle: You know, I think that’s one of the cool things about our tagline of Life’s 2 Short 4 Just 1 Sport. The “why” is sort of built-in there but then people are like, “Well, how did he get there?”
So, I now have a 24-year-old daughter who, when she was nine, had tried out for the local travel soccer team in West Hartford, Connecticut, where my wife, Kerry, and I were raising our three kids. And (Alannah) was the oldest of three, and Kerry and I come from a strong sports background.
You know, to be honest, we just didn’t want our kid to stink at stuff. You know, like any parent, you want their participation level to be one that’s enjoyable and that they can find their niche.
So I was actually coaching soccer at the public high school there in town, and Kerry is an athletic director. So when (Alannah) tried out, we had no idea how she would do. We didn’t have a baseline for how good she was. Well, we get the phone call. It’s kind of one of those proud parent phone calls as, “Hey, your daughter is our number one prospect.” And I was like, “Dude, she’s nine years old. How is she a prospect of anything?”
And so, he doesn’t really get my response and starts to go on about how she’s going to fit into his Brazilian style of play and his system and the whole thing. And I’m thinking like, I’ve coached now in New York City, Seattle, and now, here in West Hartford. I know soccer.
And so I finally said, “Well look, my wife played lacrosse in college, and Alanna is starting to show some interest in lacrosse. Can you tell me what the conflict will be like in the Spring?” Because we were disappointed to hear that travel was a Fall and a Spring sport.
And he goes, “Hold on a second.” As if he’s going to go talk to the guy in the back of the car dealership. And he comes back like 20 awkward seconds later and says, “We’re no longer interested in your daughter.”
Went from number one prospect to no longer interested simply because, as a nine-year-old, she was expressing interest in trying another sport.
And I can’t say to you right now the choice words I had for this gentleman, who is a perfectly fine guy. And I don’t mean to blast him so much, but he represented a lot of what we were starting to see.
But, when it becomes personal, then all of a sudden you’re like, “Okay, this is different.” Right? It’s happening to your own child. And we had seen this stuff going on. And I was seeing it as a coach at the high school level. Kerry was seeing it as an AD. So we decided, “Look, we could infiltrate”, right? As opposed to shouting from the mountain tops, how bad it is.
You know, people today will just go on Twitter and tell the story and then they move on. So we said, “Let’s do something about it.” And so, that moment changed our lives. We had no idea it would, but it changed our lives. And thankfully, the lives of a lot of other people.
So that night, we came up with the tagline, Life’s 2 Short 4 Just 1 Sport. We went to the administration at Kerry’s school and said, “Hey, we have an idea for a multi-sport camp.” In fact, we called it, Boyle’s Three Season Sports Academy our first year because we wanted to bring back the three-sport athlete.
You know, from there it just resonated so much with folks. Like, people inherently know the value of multi-sport, but they need to see people at a higher level demonstrate why it’s important. And I think that’s something we were able to do in our approach and in our model.
Chuck Wilson: How would you describe the philosophy that you developed?
Steve Boyle: At the start, it was just, let’s bring back the three-sport athlete and let’s bring back the “Just be home by dark, and don’t miss dinner” sort of mentality. So I can’t say there was a philosophical approach when we first started it, except that we saw just how absolutely crazy sports were becoming. Travel soccer was the first culprit, but soon to follow was AAU basketball, then there was travel lacrosse and travel hockey and travel field hockey.
So now as we look back, I mean, we have a much more intentional definition of what we do from a Long-Term Athlete Development standpoint, coupled with physical literacy development. And so I’m sure we’ll get a chance to talk about physical literacy as our conversation continues. But, I hadn’t even heard of physical literacy at that point. It would probably be six years before I heard the term physical literacy which is now part of what I do internationally, is to talk about that concept and to program for it.
Chuck Wilson: How would you describe the culture of the program?
Steve Boyle: Well, I think when we first started, you kind of learn by doing and you learn by failing, and in making some mistakes. Initially, we were part of the problem. We were over-instructive. We were programmed to the minute. And now, I would say, we’re rooted in play. We want to bring back the joy of play because, for so many kids, play isn’t fun. Think about that. Like, how can that be?
All of our early childhood memories, when we think about ourselves at play, there’s never an adult involved, right? I open up a lot of my talks when I’m doing trainings, “Share a memory of yourself as a child at play.” And 95 to 99% of the memories never involve an adult.
And so that led us to say, “Look, let’s get kids doing their thing, and then let’s either participate with them or let’s get out of the way. But let’s not be on the sideline, barking instructions.”
So, our whole approach and our whole philosophy is really to teach kids that space, environment, equipment, should not be a hindrance, right? So, growing up with five brothers, we’d ball up socks if it was too nasty out to go outside. And we’d figure out the broomstick or something else that we could use as the bat and you’re constantly making up games. Kids don’t do that anymore.
Chuck Wilson: Everything is just so formulated now. Everything is adult-driven. What’s happened to youth-led activities?
Steve Boyle I think a lot of that is because, at a young age, we start having kids go through drills and playing competitions with referees and adults on the sideline way too early.
Like, I can remember growing up that, no one ever taught me anything until I was probably in middle school, right. And so everything I was taught was self-taught. It would be watching the Celtics and then going outside and being Tiny Archibald or being Larry Bird. And I would put chairs in the driveway. I’d make up my own drills. But I was always by myself so there was never this fear of failure, there was never this fear of showing up on somebody’s Instagram story or getting my ankles broken and being on YouTube and going viral for that.
So I think we’ve created this culture where kids aren’t given the liberty to just try stuff and figure it out and say, “Oh, that felt good because that really worked.” Or, “That obviously didn’t work and they keep calling me for a travel,” or whatever the case may be. Like, if we can just put kids in situations where they can learn the social context of interacting with their teammates, how to pick teams, how to include other kids, and then how to try stuff out. Like, that’s how you get good at things. You try them out, and if it doesn’t work, you either do it again or you move on to a different skill.
Chuck Wilson: We are seeing so many parents that will pull a kid out of practice so that they can play for another team because the feeling is (that) I want to give my child as many game situations as possible so that they’ll be able to compete better and learn more. But learning is about trying new things. What kid is going to try out something new when they’re in a game?
Steve Boyle: So look, a perfect example…I use a lot of basketball analogies because I can go back to my own roots in terms of that sport. But, you know, if you are just trying to experiment with the between-the-leg and a behind-the-back dribble in combination, and you’re not allowed to do that at the playground because you’re constantly in practice situations, or in “game” situations, to your point, how do you get to experiment in those situations?
The other thing that’s really happened as a result of this sort of hyper instructive and parents so involved is that we reward the early bloomer and we miss out on the late bloomer.
And so, you know Chuck, I was the ninth-best player on an average freshman basketball team. And I loved basketball. I mean I literally slept with the basketball as an eighth-grader, and I was still the ninth-best player, as a 14-year-old, on an average team.
Four years later, I’m starting against Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden.
Kids today, that would just never happen because that ninth-best player would feel so demoted and not have an opportunity to then go do the things that I did which was to play for hours and hours and hours by myself to get better. No one taught me, I just sort of did it. And we don’t give kids the opportunity to do that, because if I was in that generation, I wouldn’t have made the AAU team because I was the ninth-best player on a bad team. And so, I would have just moved on to cross country or soccer or something else.
Chuck Wilson: Tell us what the high school coach had told you.
Steve Boyle: Oh, so Coach Cusack, I still consider him a lifelong friend, but he had played Division I at Hofstra. He was about my height and I had two really, really good scorers on my high school basketball team, a 21 and a 23 point-a-game scorer.
And so my role was get Rory and get Jeff the basketball, right. And then defend the heck out of the best player on the other team, regardless of their size. And so I did that, but then I’m like, you know what, “I can hang with these guys.” You know what I mean? And I was always able to stop the best player on the other team, you know, kids that were going on to play Dukes and the like. And so coach Cusack, I went to him and I said, “Look, you know what? I have a check written to go to the State University of New York at Oswego, and I think I might be able to play there.” I go, “But, I really want to play Division I basketball.”
And he said to me, “You could never play Division I basketball.” And that’s all I needed to hear, (laughs) because at that point I’m like, “All right. Well, this is somebody who I really admire.” And I don’t prescribe this as a coach, certainly. And I think we’re in a different generation where, if the wrong person had said that to me…(But) we just had a kind of a relationship like that where I don’t know if he was intending to motivate me, but sure enough, a year later I had, you know (made a Division 1 team). A lot of it was good timing and good luck, but it happened.
Chuck Wilson: There are a couple of things in play that really concern me. One is the idea of travel sports being more than one season because what I think the adults miss on this, Steve, is that there is an incredible social component. When a kid is able to wear that travel jacket to school, is able to sit with those kids and so on, for those kids that don’t make it, the social exclusion, not having common experiences with your friends…you don’t have that (issue) if you are playing multiple sports, because you’ve got these multiple opportunities to to have all kinds of connections…(but) boy, you tie yourself to one sport. I mean, we had two of our three kids play travel soccer. They liked soccer, but they didn’t really want to necessarily play it two seasons a year. And by the way, during the winter, you’re on your own, but you are highly advised to work on your skills, indoor.
Steve Boyle: Exactly.
Chuck Wilson: And you’re saying to yourself, “Look.” We’ve done the research to see that this specialization at early ages is causing an incredible amount of burnout even for kids who like a particular sport. Let’s address that and why sports sampling is so important, even beyond the first couple of years of the kid’s experience with youth sports.
Steve Boyle: Yeah. Again Chuck, you brought up so many different pieces, but that social component is obviously huge. And again, I would argue, it speaks to the early bloomer. And so what you’d find is, those really good early athletes who might have older siblings that you played with when you were young. You might be at a particular advantage for that reason. Well, it’s super unfair that now that kid has made travel soccer, travel basketball, travel lacrosse, all the elite ones. And it’s mainly because they’re coordinated at a young age and they can run really fast.
And so what happens then as adults, we’re looking at it thinking, “All right, so I had 19 kids show up for my travel basketball tryout, and I decided to cut four so that I could have a roster of 15.” Well, first of all, if you can’t program for 19 kids in a six-basket gym, then you shouldn’t be coaching. And, the positive thing you may have done for those 15 fifth graders, you know, 11-year-olds, think about the detriment you did to the four that you just cut.
Chuck Wilson: You’re reducing the potential number of kids (who go on to play a sport) because you don’t know who’s going to grow into their bodies. Why reduce (the number of potential future players) before kids have even reached puberty? It just doesn’t make sense.
Steve Boyle: Well, I think part of it is a lack of alignment in most towns and communities between that sort of varsity program. The towns I’ve seen that have great success are the ones where there’s this cross-generational approach, that the varsity coach actually cares about what’s happening in their feeder systems. And they’re going in and doing clinics, and they’re talking to the parents, and they’re not saying to kids, “You should only be playing soccer or only playing basketball.” I mean, they all get Long Term Athlete Development that up to age 12, you should be sampling…Look, I get gymnastics. I know there are some sports, you know, people talk about Tiger Woods, had he not started then. But Roger Federer didn’t pick it up seriously until he was 13 or 14. You know what I mean? Because tennis sometimes gets a bad rap. I’m sorry, if you’re playing a multitude of sports, you’re getting better at other sports.
Chuck Wilson: Right.
Steve Boyle: I mean, you just are.
Chuck Wilson: And one builds on the other. One sport helps another and you avoid a lot of the physical burnout. We know 50% of athletic injuries in early youth sports are tied to overuse injuries. So, let’s have our kids exposed to as many sports as possible. This gets back to the sampling. I want to know how you do sampling. What does sampling sports mean with 2-4-1?
Steve Boyle: Yeah. So in each of our programs, we always give choices when we’re able. And we’re in the age of COVID right now, so because of that, we’ve had to shift to what’s called a cohort model so that kids aren’t co-mingling. And so with that, what we do in those cases is we rotate the cohorts through some predefined sports or activities. And often there’ll be a combination of sports that we’ve just creatively joined together so that kids are sort of seeing the fundamental movements of one sport to the next, crossing over. I think, in our traditional model, we’ll give at least five choices up to our largest program has 14 choices. And in the registration process, they’ll choose at least three sports.
And then we’ll build a master schedule that’s almost like, “You know how you have English, math, and social studies? Well, you might have tennis, field hockey, and basketball,” right. And at the same time, flag football, baseball, and what we call universal sports, which is sports from around the globe where each day you’ll get introduced to a new one.
And so from a sampling standpoint, when we do our trainings with our coaches, we’re always trying to hook that kid that sees themselves as a soccer-only person or a basketball-only person. So that when you’re teaching something like fencing or you’re teaching lacrosse, you can help them see how the skill of the sport they know, directly applies to the one they don’t. Because, for a lot of kids, it’s just fear, right. They’re like, “Well, what if I stink at it? Or what if I don’t know the rules? Or what if I look silly?”
And so, it’s really…When they have that Aha moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is exactly the way I play basketball.”
Like, I coach girl’s lacrosse. There’s not a man in the world who’s ever played girl’s lacrosse. It’s a different game than the men’s game. I didn’t even play men’s lacrosse, but I loved it so much because everything I did, I stole from basketball. Defensive drills. We did like three and five-man weaves. But all the cutting concepts, you could set screens, you’d do backdoor cut. It was so similar. And so I was able to recruit the basketball kids and say, “Look, it’s a heck of a lot easier to cradle this (ball) than it is to bounce the ball and do all the other things we’re doing.” So they picked it up so quickly.
And so when you can do that in a sampling program in a week or two, you can then get kids hooked to be able to say, “Hey, I think I’m going to try out for field hockey.” That was really fun. And now I’m not afraid to try out because I know the rules.”
Tennis is one. It’s amazing to me how many kids don’t know how to go to the park and keep score in tennis. They’re like, “15 love. What does love mean?” And so in a sports sampling program, by the end of the week, they could take mom and dad to the park and play tennis, and play a game and then play a set if they want. Like, that’s a good skill for them to have for the rest of their life.
Chuck Wilson: Give us a little backstory of how you realized the importance of having coaches who have a multi-sports background and know how to teach kids.
Steve Boyle: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the most important thing, right. You just said it, we teach kids and we coach kids. A lot of people say, “Well, I teach math.” No, you teach kids. Math is the subject you’re teaching. And so when we talk about coaching, same thing. We coach kids first. And so, sometimes I’ll have some coaches be like, “Well I don’t have a really strong baseball background.” I’m like, “You don’t have to have a really strong baseball background to get kids excited about baseball, because in fact, if you can coach kids, you can join with them on your own fear of your own inadequacies. Because when you do that with kids, it makes a big difference, right”.
So, I mean I’m awkward when I play baseball. I kind of swing out here so then I could say to the kid like, “Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong?” So part of what we do is we join with kids, and it’s one of the reasons we tell our coaches, “You have to play.”
Like, if you come to our program, don’t come because you want to learn how to do a crossover dribble, or you want to learn how to do a Maradona, or you want to learn how to throw a change-up, right. You come to our program because you want to learn how to play in the backyard, in the street, organized games, because that’s this… A lot of people are like, “Well, that’s not instruction.” Heck yeah, it is because what we’ve created in sports sometimes are performers. We’ve created dancers.
I saw it all the time when I was coaching high school soccer. We always kept the kids that could juggle 74 times. But you never juggle in a real soccer game. I’d rather get the kid who’s going to run after the ball that’s going out of bounds and save it as if their whole life depends on it. That’s who I want.
But what we’ve done is, we start to reward the dancers, the kids who can break somebody’s ankles in basketball or somebody who can maybe run a certain 40-time or whatever. Like, none of the stuff that really is going to matter at the high school level. So the instruction we do is really about how to organize yourselves into fun play, so that the creativity we were just talking about without adults involved, they can do without the adults there.
Chuck Wilson: One of the beauties, I think of the program is this Long-Term Athlete Development Model. It came from Canada. It’s been ADM, American Development Model here, but some sports have figured it out. Hockey was losing so many kids and they said, “Okay, let’s back off. Let’s figure out what makes this fun.“ And they start looking at it. “Well, let’s do cross-ice, three on threes, and get more kids…more kids doing rather than watching, right. That goes back to the whole idea of not cutting players, just keep as many in the mix as you can.
But this early effort to get confidence coming from competency on motor skills, on movement skills so the kids feel better about their ability to move their body. Talk a little bit about the importance of getting kids at early ages to develop some of these movement and motor skills because this is key.
Steve Boyle: Absolutely. What we were hearing out of Europe was that some of the some of higher-end clubs were hiring circus arts people or gymnastic coaches to come in to teach their kids how to fall because they were getting all these injuries. Because these high-level soccer players, when I say high level, they could do some of the soccer stuff, but again, to the point I was making before, they didn’t know how to fall, they didn’t know how to tumble, none of those things. And so, the way you learn those things is by doing them. And so with the ADM, the Long Term Athlete Development Model, really what they’re saying is, we got to give as many touches and as many experiences as possible. So, if you take hockey, and you were going the long ice, it meant that kids were watching a lot.
One of the things I always prided myself on before we ever did 2-4-1, was the efficiency of practices. I’ve got 90 minutes. How am I going to maximize the 90 minutes so I get my whole group to feel involved and we get better? How do you get better? Well, you get better by playing, you get better by doing and putting them into game situations. And one of the things I found too, was that a lot of coaches were doing drills where a lot of kids were watching. And then there was a lot of stopping and then instructing and correcting. Well, that’s no fun. It’s no fun for the person getting corrected. They’re young, they’re embarrassed. An adult is now correcting them in front of their peers. And the peers are bored because they could care less what you’re saying to that kid.
And now they’re twiddling their thumbs or they’re punching each other and they’re being kids. And then we lose them from sport. So hockey did get it. They said, “Hey, let’s get more kids involved, more touches, more creativity.” And then you sort of naturally develop those movement skills that you’re talking about because you’re playing the game. And that’s where you develop the ability to fall, the ability to plant and cut, right. All those things that happen sort of naturally when you’re playing these sports. It’s not to say that we don’t teach them or we don’t drill for them in some capacity, but we certainly don’t over drill when we trust they’re going to get as much out of just putting them in that game situation as I am to put them in a drill to do the exact same thing. Because the first thing that kids will say when they arrive at practice is, “Are we going to scrimmage today?” They just want to play.
Chuck Wilson: Exactly.
Steve Boyle: They just want to play. And they don’t want to play in a situation where you’re constantly stopping me, right. And you’re constantly lecturing me, or you’re making me feel badly about myself while I’m playing. (Laughs).
Chuck Wilson: We wonder why kids decide that they’d rather play video games. Tom Farrey, who you know well at the Aspen Institute has made the point. What are the makers of these games doing? They figure out what the kids want. And, the more that we can make this kid-centric, I mean, that’s what’s going to keep them playing and they’ll develop a passion to play. But if you take away their joy…I mean, I’m a big John Wooden guy, so to me, it is all about the process. And you’ve been able to take that and get the parents to buy into, “Hey, the process of learning to play sports, the social and emotional components to it, this idea of how to collaborate with others, how to work toward a common goal. All of these are really things that can be done if we’re intentional about having kids have deliberate play, giving them creativity. But having it with the kind of structure that will help them.
Steve Boyle: Sure. Yeah. Look, I think one of the things as a long-time counselor and coach, I would often quip that I did more counseling when I was coaching and more coaching when I was counseling. Because really, you know, it’s ultimately about building a relationship, holding kids accountable right, and setting high expectations for them. And then kind of getting out of the way and letting them own it in some capacity. But I think that’s why I was drawn to the concept of Physical Literacy and Long Term Athlete Development, which I try to not look at it in isolation now. We call it the American Development Model here in the United States, but it is our version of Long Term Athlete Development, which is a term I like better simply because (of the words) long-term. It says we’re in a slow cooker, we’re not in a microwave, right.
And so what you’ve got to allow is over time, for kids to develop at their own pace, right. And I think that’s part of the problem. But as a counselor, what I was drawn to on Physical Literacy was, all coaches always focus on ability, right. “I’ve got to teach skills.” But confidence and desire to me, like that’s where the magic happens. Because, if you look at the physical literacy cycle. It’s ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life. Well, you can enter the cycle through desire like, “I really want to do this.” You could enter it through confidence, “I’m really good at it,” right. Or you can enter it with the ability, “I want to keep learning more skills and because I’m good at it, I’m now confident, which gives me the desire to then learn more skills”, right.
It’s like dancing. You’re probably first going to try to do it in front of the mirror before you go out in public. But then when you realize like, “You know what? I think I got this, I have the confidence to go out and dance in public. And now I have the desire to go back and learn some more, some new moves.”
Steve Boyle: I have a colleague, Glenn Young, who is the athletic director and the head of PE at the largest school district for British Columbia. And Glenn and I talk a lot about physical literacy. At the end of the day, he said, “It’s about creating a disposition to be active for life.”
And I liked that because I think a disposition is like you just sort of know sometimes that “Well, that’s a science kid, that’s a music kid.” Well, we should all be movement people. We should all be movement kids… We’re all movers. So at the end of the day, physical literacy should be about developing movers. And that could be dance, could be hiking, could be yoga, and in my case, I like to do it through sport, but that’s just been my thing.
And so when we think about physical literacy, a lot of the analogy we’ll give is building blocks. What we’re trying to do in the early years is build these fundamental movement skills like phonics. You’re going to try to connect the sounds and then eventually you create words and sentences and then stories. And so, same thing as far as Physical Literacy goes. But it’s why now I like to couple it with Long-term Athlete Development. So one of the things we look at is a developmental stage with Physical Literacy, and in the early years what’s so important is that there is an explorative stage which is kind of like sampling, but a little more free-flowing and imaginative.
So, picture a kid. If you were to put a bucket of balls, some scarves, and you put them on the outside of the playscape, the first thing they’d probably do is go up and down the slide and climb the monkey bars, but then they’re going to come find the implements. And so from a physical literacy standpoint, think about the idea of giving kids opportunities to try what they want. And eventually, they’re going to find the balls and the scarves and they’re going to start to play with those as well. Because what happens too much now, especially in America, is we take you to Tee-ball or we take you to soccer, and anybody can run into the ball, but the child didn’t choose that.
And if you’re saying they did, it was because you gave them positive feedback. You told them how good they were at it. That felt good so now they’re going to do it. So with physical literacy, what we try to do is really allow them to create internal locus of control, that they’re owning some of the choices. And it’s hard.
Look, I get it. As a parent you’re busy, you got work and there are only so many programs you can do, but why do they have to be driven everywhere? Why can’t you organize stuff at the local park, in your backyard, in the street, with friends, with cousins, with whomever? I think, especially up until age 12, why are we driving 940 miles for a weekend tournament when you’re playing a town that lives eight miles away from you? I mean, it’s crazy, right.
And so, look, I could do a whole sort of thing on physical literacy, but in the short term, I think it’s about creating opportunities for kids to develop genuine confidence and have their own desire, not parental desire. It has to, otherwise, you’re going to lose them. You just are. They’re going to turn 13 and they’re going to say, “Are you kidding me? I’ve only been doing this because you told me I was good at it. And you told me I like it. I don’t like it that much.” But if you can get them to own the “desire” piece of it, that’s where the magic is.
Chuck Wilson: And one of the things you’ve talked about has been, you can make this connection and make it cool to kids from the superhero standpoint. Reflect on that a little bit as to what your thinking is.
Steve Boyle: Yeah. So, you know we’ve got this thing of helping kids feel more powerful because, for me, that’s the confidence piece…Going back to my counselor hat. We’re medicating kids for anxiety in the third and fourth grades. And anxiety is really just a lack of confidence. And so, if we can reverse that at an early age, we can teach them, first of all, how to control their anxiety. You’re in charge of the way you think. So we do this thing where we take them from how they’re feeling and help them identify their emotions, but take them from how they’re feeling to how they want to feel.
Because in most cases, you can replace the anxious thought, the angry thought, the goofy thought, whatever, and go to that place. And so we think about it as a superhero like, “I’m in charge.” And that sort of confidence of being able to do what you want that you have the power and you have the ability. And obviously, we all dream when we’re kids about flying and doing all that, but just even body posture. If you can teach those sort of things to kids at a young age, it’ll translate over time, because it becomes a life skill.
Chuck Wilson: Self-discovery, self-determination. If we can foster those kinds of… I want to see kids have the desire to take on challenging tasks and (see) that failure should be looked upon as a way to learn. That’s how you learn.
Steve Boyle: What I’ll say to coach parents is, you measure your wins and losses, not on your record, but by how many kids come back the next year. Simple as that. And then look back on who your favorite coach was. And it’s the Maya Angelou effect, you might not remember what they say or what they did, but you remember how they made you feel. And so, if we can get people everyday they go into a practice to say, “I want this kid to remember how I made them feel.” No decent human being wants to make a kid feel lousy about themselves.
And God bless Chaz Walker, I don’t even know where the guy is. He was my freshman basketball coach. I’m in the game at the end and again, I wasn’t one of the better players. I’ll never forget. So it’s like we’re down one point with maybe four seconds to go. I’m on the foul line. And I’m stepping up and of course, I’m just sweating. And all of a sudden, I look over at coach Walker doing his best Chris Farley impersonation. He’s (screaming), “Relax. Relax.”
Then I, of course, miss both free throws. And, he yelled at me for missing them as if I tried to miss them and I tried to not relax.
But I think that that’s part of why we’ve got to do quality coach training, right. Or, why are we putting kids in so many games situations at so young of an age, to even have parents who are yelling at kids? I think that’s the other problem is, why do you have a 30-game Spring season for nine-year-olds? I mean, it’s crazy, right.
The other problem is the pressure that we put on those coaches, volunteer or not. And I can usually tell a lack of confidence from any coach. And you’ll hear this in every level, every game, even at the college level you’ll hear, “What did we just talk about?” It’s as if they’re announcing to the parents or the fans like, “I know what I’m doing, it’s the kid’s fault.” And so, as a result, the kid then loses any trust. But all you’re doing is announcing your frustration and, please don’t ridicule me because I know why you’re complaining about that kid doing that. So we create this awful cycle of coach-parent-player relationship. And so one of the things we talk about so much in our programs is the power of relationship, coach to player, parent to coach, and then parent to player as well. It’s like, we need to teach parents how to communicate with their child. That’s one of the most important things we do when we are working with organizations outside of our own direct programming.
So we’ll go in and we’ll do trainings and we will, as consultants, work with some schools to develop athletic programs or help with what they might be doing.
We’re big acronym people, because we want people to be able to remember the things we’re talking about. So one of the things we developed, which can apply to business in any other setting, is the CARE Path to Success. And CARE stands for Culture, Ability, Relationship, and EnJOYment. And, it’s four equal parts.
What we have found when looking at most programs is, there is somewhere between 50 and 90% on the ability part, right. The competence part.
Well, the first thing you got to do is think about what kind of culture you want to have. And when you build culture, you don’t just build it with one individual, you build it with your entire system. With your parents, with the town you might be serving, with the school you might be serving. And you have to be deliberate about how you’re going to do that. And it’s more of a Venn diagram because “relationship” is going to impact culture. You can’t really teach ability unless you have a relationship. If you don’t like your teacher, you’re probably not going to pay attention. And then enjoyment. And when we write the word enjoyment, we capitalize joy because joy is a powerful word in and of itself. And if what we’re doing isn’t fun, we’re going to lose kids. And it’s probably not worth doing, quite frankly, if it’s sport.
And, you know what? Sometimes people are like, “Oh, you’re too much on fun.”
Look, it’s a game, at the end of the day, it’s a game. And you talk to Steph Curry and you watch him. He’s having fun. It’s enjoyable for him. It’s not to say that we don’t have kids work hard and we don’t put them in situations that are challenging, and we don’t allow them to mourn a loss if that feels appropriate. But we don’t allow them to be mean or to be mourning the loss two weeks later, or any of those things.
So culture, ability, relationship, enjoyment, we think that’s a pretty good recipe for that volunteer coach or that paid coach or a parent or a kid to look at, to say, Okay, am I focusing on those things in the equal parts that they deserve?”
Ability has to be there, right. You need to know how to play the game. You need the skills to get better at it, but don’t focus just on that. It’s like you were saying before. Process.
If you do all the other little things, I’m telling you, wins and losses just take care of themselves. If you’ve got some players, you’re going to win a few games if you follow the CARE path to success.
Chuck Wilson: How do you intentionally foster character?
Steve Boyle: Well look, it’s a great question. I always get worried about things like intentionality, because that to me means, I’ve got to teach you. And when we say teaching, it’s sit down and listen to me. But, I think so much of character development is in modeling, right. And I think the modeling piece about character…you know, character education is, when you mess up, own it to the players.
If I was inappropriate with the referee, make sure the players see me apologize to that referee. Or, let them know what I did to do that. If I made a boneheaded mistake in terms of how I should have subbed or handled making sure I got some kids in a game, I’ve got to make sure that the team sees me apologize to the players I may have wronged.
And I think so much of it goes back to relationship. So I would always start my practices with a circle. And it was an opportunity to express where I was at emotionally to start that practice, but also give other players opportunities. It was amazing to me how open people became. And I would just say like, “Look, I just left an awful meeting and I’m telling you right now, I’m in a foul mood because of that.” And if I take it out on any one of you, I want to apologize right now, but I’m hoping by me acknowledging it, I’m not going to take it out in any of you.”
And I think that’s where the character stuff comes in, it’s humanizing the experience. It’s really letting them know I value you, and I value the two hours we’re about to have together. These are precious moments. It’s a short season. We only get each other a couple of hours a day. That stuff resonates much more than putting up, “Pride is forever” and stuff over locker rooms. That stuff’s all well and good, but I don’t think it has the same impact as practices in terms of how we treat each other.
Chuck Wilson: You put it so well, Steve. I think that when we think of teachable moments, we think that the teaching has to be done by the coach or the teacher. Really, it’s about asking the kids about a situation and how it could be handled. And getting them to reflect on it, because again, it’s about self-discovery. It’s not about telling kids what their character should be. It’s about putting them in an environment where they can reach certain self–taught principals about how they think things ought to be done, and the way that they want to treat other people.
Competitive integrity, I want to ask you about that. Because I get some interesting responses when I ask how someone views competitive integrity. How do you view it?
Steve Boyle: Yeah. And again, I’ll be honest, Chuck. It’s not a term I’ve heard over the years put together, but I love it because certainly a game like golf is known for just honoring the game. And we’ve seen more about honoring the game.
And look, growing up with the amount of brothers I did, and us all wanting to win, a lot of times you almost learn how to not have integrity when you’re younger. Because you’re watching your older brothers who don’t want to lose to the little one essentially cheat to get by. And so, it goes back to that relationship piece and really talking to kids about what matters and about “process”.
I think that the worst thing that can happen, and I did this as a young coach. I’d start the season sometimes and be like, “Hey, let’s go undefeated.” And then all of a sudden, we would do this cheer, we’d come in one, two, three, and we’d whisper, “Undefeated.” And then we lost. Now what do you do? “One, two, three 19 and one.” (laughs)
Really what you were doing is you were saying that winning mattered more than anything else. So I think, to have competitive integrity, the first thing you want to do is take the emphasis off of winning and put it on process, because then all of a sudden, you don’t feel this pressure to have to have that outcome. All you have is the pressure to be good to each other every day.
And so if you can build a culture in your program, where that is how you’re measuring wins and losses, well, then you don’t need to worry about things like fighting with the referee about a call that you probably knew went off the other person anyway or judging those sorts of situations. So I think it’s super important to really talk to kids about what your goals are, but why. It’s not to say, “Hey, we want to qualify for the state tournament, we want to see if we can beat our record from last year.” But, this is how we’re going to do it, and we’re not going to talk about that anymore. The rest of the season is going to be about how on a day-to-day basis, we’re going to treat each other and how we’re going to perform in practice and all those other things.
And obviously, somebody watching this might only coach third graders. A lot of my frame of reference is thinking about anywhere from freshmen, JV, to varsity level and the high school. And the college coaches, their livelihood is tied to wins and losses. But even the ones who are successful there, don’t focus on…like I loved watching Gonzaga this year. And so, when people look back on that Gonzaga season, it’s going to be a little bit like the USA Hockey.
So, remember the USA Hockey story. People forget that when they beat Russia, they still had another game. I can tell you now when the Gonzaga folks look back on their season. What they’re going to remember is the win over UCLA. They’re not going to remember the loss as much as they remember the game over UCLA. That’s going to define their season. And I think it’s because they have a culture there that it wasn’t like, “If we don’t win the championship, we’re losers.” Because, when I think about competitive integrity, there’s part of it is tied to that. It’s focusing too much on winning as opposed to process taking care of what’s going to happen regardless.
Chuck Wilson: And lastly, The Way You Win Matters®. That’s our message at Even Field. And, it’s going to be looked at differently by some people. What does that phrase mean to you?
Steve Boyle: It was part of why I was drawn to Even Field, your tagline meant a lot to me, right. Because I think, you know, how we win that’s character development.
If we gloat, if we do it with a lack of dignity, if we do it with a lack of empathy, I’ll use the Gonzaga (example) again. If you watch the clip at the end of the game, Jalen Suggs hits the half-court shot, the whole team runs up onto the table. Mark Few turns to the other coach and almost apologetically wants to give him a hug even with his mask on because he knew immediately how that half-court shot ended that guy’s season.
The way you win matters. Mark Few demonstrated that right there. And I think that’s a perfect analogy of how we should be always thinking about who our competitors are and recognize it’s a human process.
Chuck Wilson: Leave us with this, the message that you have about sports sampling, about physical literacy and where you’re headed.
Steve Boyle: Yeah. So each year I want to set some goals in terms of how we want to spread our message. But when I look back on the last decade-plus, it’s amazing to me how that moment of outrage has turned into a movement that is now multinational. And so, I sometimes feel like I’m running into the wind on this. And it’s real challenging in terms of trying to get people to change culture, to change behavior. One of the things I’ve realized is that I have to continue to try to take a top-down approach, work with national organizations, national governing bodies, professional sports, but also take a bottom-up approach, that the way to really create change is one community at a time, it’s one locality at a time.
And, if we can do that and we start to gain momentum, conversations like this are super helpful, because, at the end of the day, people get it. Like, they understand that what we’re talking about makes good sense. We just try to help them get the courage to act on it and to program for it. I think that’s the real differentiator between us and maybe some other organizations, is that we program for it. We actually get boots on the ground and we do it, and then we get other people in their communities to do the same thing. And that’s what we’re hoping we can continue to do around the United States, North America, and other countries.
That’s Steve Boyle of 2-4-1 Sports.
A video version of this conversation is available on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.
Chuck Wilson on Sports” and our Peer Into Character® conversations are a presentation of Even Field. If you enjoyed this program, please like us on Facebook and let us know who you would like to see us interview in future shows.
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Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.