I just received an excellent e-mail from a soccer strength coach half way around the world detailing how the rest of the world creates great young athletes.
It really makes us question if our method of training future stars is inadequate at best. Are we playing too much and practicing too little? Other than exposure, what does AAU ball offer? Is that why our fundamentals have become so poor and overuse injuries become so prominent? Do we specialize too early?
Some notable quotes from the article with my thoughts:
“He was particularly useful in translating a culture that was nothing like I had ever seen in many years of reporting on American sports. When I observed that for all the seriousness of purpose at De Toekomst, I was surprised that the players did not practice more hours or play more games, Rooi said: ‘Of course, because they do not want to do anything to injure them or wear them out.'”
Overuse injuries have become glaringly apparent in youth baseball. How many kids have elbow and shoulders problems, and don’t even get to finish their high school pitching career, let alone their college career. Too much pitching too soon and too often. Basketball doesn’t seem to have the same detrimental effect, but I think that’s primarily because most “nagging” injuries in basketball are not career ending like shoulder/elbow injuries are in baseball. Bad hips, knees, and feet are becoming more and more common among middle school and high school basketball players. Add poor functional movement to all of the games played, and we’ve created a recipe for short basketball careers.
“But one element of the academy’s success is that the boys are not overplayed, so the hours at De Toekomst are all business. Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend. “For the young ones, we think that’s enough,” Riekerink said when we talked in his office one day. “They have a private life, a family life. We don’t want to take that from them. When they are not with us, they play on the streets. They play with their friends. Sometimes that’s more important. They have the ball at their feet without anyone telling them what to do.”
Why don’t we see the outdoor courts in the parks filled with basketball players anymore? Because they’re too busy flying across country playing in AAU tournaments and recuperating from their overuse injuries. We focus on games, plays, and win-losses. Fundamentals, player development, and creativity take a backseat. Most youth and select programs have 3-4 times as many games as they do practice. And what little practice they do have is spent on strategy and plays.
“In all age groups, training largely consists of small-sided games and drills in which players line up in various configurations, move quickly and kick the ball very hard to each other at close range. In many practice settings in the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, just to get loose, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cellphone or chatting with parents. At the Ajax academy, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. “You see this a lot of places,” a coach from a pro club in Norway, who was observing at Ajax, said to me. “Every program wants to maximize touches.”
In my opinion, this is the most important difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world. In a typical summer league basketball game, how many shots will the 4th, 5th, and 6th best players get every game? 5, maybe 6 if they’re extremely lucky. Better yet, how many touches does the 4th, 5th, and 6th best players get? And we wonder why some players never develop. Who can honestly improve with just 5-6 shots per game and little if any practice time? Our athletes get as many shots in 1 session as others do the entire summer. Our “games first” mentality is flawed. Players don’t develop because they’re never given a chance to improve. In-season practice focuses on plays and strategy, while the off-season focuses on games. When do we focus on the player?
The majority of improvement seen during the 4 years of high school is not actually skill improvement, but size, speed and strength improvement. Players are better by their senior year not because they’re better basketball players, but because they’re bigger, stronger, and faster. We let a freshmen center become a senior center without developing a left-hand baby hook. By the time a freshmen point guard becomes a senior point guard, they dribble no better with their weak hand. We have completely ignored player development because we can’t see the trees through the forest. We’ve become so focused on the team and winning, we forget what makes up the team. In the past the fundamentals were addressed in 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, so by the time the players got to high school, the coach could focus on strategy, plays, and win-losses. However now, even in the lower grades, the coaches and teams worry about win-losses more than perfecting fundamentals, and the individual players suffer for the “glory” of the team.
“How the U.S. develops its most promising young players is not just different from what the Netherlands and most elite soccer nations do — on fundamental levels, it is diametrically opposed.Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat. In a way, it is a reversal of type. Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players. Americans underdevelop the individual, although most of the volunteers who coach at the youngest level would not be cognizant of that.”
“Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted. They tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. “As soon as a kid here starts playing, he’s got referees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs,” John Hackworth, the former coach of the U.S. under-17 national team and now the youth-development coordinator for the Philadelphia franchise in Major League Soccer, told me. “As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It’s counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do.”
“Jongkind had been working with this player for several weeks and said he had progressed to “consciously able but not subconsciously able” to run with the desired form, meaning that in the heat of competition, he reverted to his old form. I pointed out that a fast but flawed runner in the United States would likely be left alone. “Everything can be trained,” Jongkind said. “You should always try to make an improvement if it’s possible.”
Do we ever fix a player’s shot anymore? No, we don’t have time because we’re too busy playing games. We have this false impression that playing games will automatically fix the fundamentals. But what if the player doesn’t even consciously realize he’s fundamentally incorrect? Can playing a game really correct technique subconsciously? Not a chance. That’s like teaching kids math by administering test after test after test without any practice, explanation, or teaching. On top of that, most players can’t even describe correct shooting form. If they can’t describe the correct form with words, how can we expect them to shoot correctly. Before it becomes subconscious, which is the goal of training, it has to been understood and practiced consciously.
“The way we approach youth soccer in the U.S. is no more thoughtless than how we groom talent in baseball or basketball. All the same syndromes apply. Overplay. Too little practice. The courting of injuries — for example, the spate of elbow operations for pitchers in their midteens brought on by coaches who leave them on the mound for too many innings. The difference is that because these are, largely, our sports, we have a head start on the rest of the world and therefore a bigger margin for error.”
4th Quarter Training was created because of articles like this, as well as books like “The Talent Code” and “Talent is Overrated,” and coaches like John Wooden and Anson Dorrance . We saw a huge unmet market that was begging for someone to step in and take charge. Parents spend hundreds and a lot of the times thousands of dollars every year on camps, traveling, and select teams with little to show for it. Teams may win, but do players really get better? The return-on-investment of those choices are poor when we actually look at it from a player development perspective.
1-on-1 and small group training is the answer. You won’t find a major Division I basketball program that doesn’t focus its offseason work on “individuals”, which is slang for 1-on-1 training. Yes, they play during the summer, but the practice:play ratio is definitely in favor of the practice, which is the complete opposite of what we do when they’re young. They understand the importance of player development, and how it translates into success on the court when it matters: during the season. Sometimes everything isn’t always about win-losses…..