Unintended Consequences

This is the story about a young basketball player we shall call “Eric”. And, it’s about the way we view talent in youth sports.

Eric’s Story

Big and tall for his age, Eric was athletically gifted. He had a good jump shot, and was a force under the basket. His size and strength intimidated opponents. From 5th grade through 8th grade, Eric was the dominant player on his travel team. He led those teams each year in scoring and rebounding, averaging over 20 points per game. He was named the Most Valuable Player in almost every tournament he played in.

It appeared that Eric was on his way to great success in basketball.

But the numbers were misleading, They hid the truth.

Instead of working to improve, Eric was getting by on his size and natural talent. He would practice his shooting, but wouldn’t work on other areas of his game. He had little interest in learning to play fundamental defense. He relied on his ability to block the shot after his opponent would get by him. He enjoyed bringing oohs and aahs from the crowd as he swatted the ball away in the lane.

Eric’s overall lack of effort led to poor habits. He would show up late to practice. He would go through the motions on drills, doing just enough to get by. Many times, he was thrown out of practice for losing his temper or for displaying a poor attitude. But each time after a conversation with the coach, Eric would be given another chance. This happened all through his travel team years.

On to High School

It was during 8th grade that things started to change. As many of his peers experienced a growth spurt, adding size and strength, Eric stopped growing. As he entered high school, he no longer was an unstoppable force inside. He couldn’t just out-muscle opponents under the basket anymore. Other players were getting more physical. Eric wasn’t. The intimidation factor he had enjoyed on the court the previous four years, was gone.

For the first time since starting to play basketball, Eric faced real competition. Confronting more skilled players at his position, playing time now would depend on his ability to play away from the basket. Nothing he had learned in travel ball made him ready for this challenge. He quickly learned that he was ill prepared to deal with the competition or the position change. While he could still shoot the ball well from outside, he lacked the lateral quickness, ball-handling skills, and basic defensive principles needed to play out on the perimeter. And, the poor effort, attitude, and practice habits developed over the previous four seasons, left him without the tools he needed to make the adjustment.

Eric eventually quit the freshman team. The most-talked about talent in middle school never played varsity basketball.

The Wrong Message

While each of us is responsible for our own actions and behaviors, Eric’s downfall was not entirely due to decisions he made. The adults in his life played a critical role. Because he had talent, coaches failed to hold him accountable for his actions. They excused his poor behavior, and rewarded him for the wrong things. No where along the line, was Eric taught that his character mattered.

Winning all those MVP trophies sent Eric the message that it’s all about the numbers. Team play wasn’t important, and his effort and attitude on the court, didn’t matter.

The awards Eric received also conveyed that message to every player and spectator attending those tournaments.

The Broader Impact

Maximizing Eric’s individual match-up advantage likely helped each of his teams to win more games. But, at what cost?

Building the team around Eric meant slowing down the offense when a fast break opportunity didn’t immediately present itself. That way, Eric could establish low-post position and teammates could feed him the ball. While other players did score, the offense was designed to get Eric the ball.

If winning games was the primary athletic goal, Eric’s coaches did well. However, if that goal was to best prepare the players for the next level of competition, the tactic was a decided failure.

Revolving the team around Eric came at the expense of his teammates. It hurt their growth as players. It compromised their opportunities to develop the skills needed to compete successfully at the next level. For four years, every player took a back seat to Eric on the offensive end. How could they develop their talent on a team so focused on getting the ball to one player?

And there is one last point. Not only did this travel team approach hurt individual player development, the damage extended right up to the town’s high school program. The players coming out of those travel teams programs were unprepared to compete at the high school level.

Through 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade basketball, parents had cheered as the travel teams, led by Eric, won lots of games. But, those victories did little to help the players advance to the next level. None of that travel team success carried over to high school because wins aren’t transferable.

It’s About the Process

We need to rethink pre-teen competitive team sports. Everyone wants to win. But, we shortchange young athletes when we focus entirely on winning games today, rather than on developing qualities needed to excel long-term.

Our emphasis should be on the process, not the result.

The research is clear on this.

Pre-high school programs that focus on player development, produce a larger pool of athletic talent to compete at the high school level. They also generate more consistent winning programs at the varsity level, when compared to programs in which winning is the stated goal.

These “feeder” systems see the benefits of taking a long-term approach. They want as many young athletes as possible to be excited about playing team sports. They invest time to help all of them to improve, not just the early standouts. It’s all about providing a steady progression from one season to the next. Each young athlete builds upon the skills learned the season before.

So, the focus isn’t on winning as many games as possible at the travel team level. The focus is on a step-by-step process of teaching and building the skills their athletes need to successfully compete the following season.

The reason is simple. Stats and records aren’t transferable. What young athletes take with them from one season to the next are the skills they’ve mastered, the habits they’ve developed, the knowledge they’ve gained, and the values they’ve formed.

So, if you are one of the many coaches of young athletes, who puts winning ahead of player development, think of the big picture. Channel your competitive drive into teaching your players skills, positive practice habits, and character traits such as perseverance, self-discipline, and respect for others.

These are building blocks that consistently produce athletes who excel on and off the playing field.

Photo Credit: Acid Pix via Flickr

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