Friday, July 29, 2011

What we can learn from the Video Game World

A lot of parents will complain about how obsessive and unhealthy video games have become. All over you hear about how our childhood obesity rates are through the roof (25-30% last time I checked) and that inactivity is at an all time low. We look to sports to be an integral part of a solution to bring obesity down and activity up. I honestly think we are losing that battle in a general sense. However, not many people ask why video games are so popular. Why do kids love video games? Maybe we can take a similar model and apply it to athletics.

Lets look at some reasons why kids love playing video games and compare it to the USA's version of youth sports.

1. Judgements-Anyone can play video games. There is no judgement from the video game if you're tall, short, fat, skinny, fast, slow, etc. They can just play! Kids feel SAFE playing video games!

2. Progression- It starts off easy. The first levels from each game are very simple to get down the basics of what you will need as you get further on. In sports game you can start with easy mode and progress to professional mode at your own pace. The video games have mastered progression.

3. Skill acquisition- Struggling with a certain area? Kids can work on it until the skill is mastered playing video games. Often you can't advance until you've mastered the basic skills and buttons of the game. You can take as much time as you need without any pressure from outside sources. Once again safety!

4. Creativity- Many kids can win the level, kill the opponent, score a touchdown, etc in a different fashion than their friends. They develop styles that work for them and can try new things without anyone yelling at them. They feel safe to try new things because they don't have a coach eyeing everything they do.

5. Rewarding- Depending on the game you get rewarded in a different manner depending on the objective. If you lose, you just start back at the beginning and do it again.

Now lets at each of these points and how we teach sports.

1. Judgement- Kids are judged immediately these days. The bigger, faster kids will get more attention from coaches and parents, meanwhile those who struggle at first end up hating the sport or dropping out. Kids absolutely pick up on these cues. Even worse we make recreational and competitive teams starting at age 5 in some clubs. Those who start a competitive team at that age deserve some good ole fashion pink belly.

2. Progression- This is an area for great improvement. Either it's too lose or too strict with many youth coaches. Master basic skills in a fun way where learning is taking place. Standing in a line for a passing drill that's boring does not help but throwing them in complete chaos without direction or building into the structure is also detrimental. I know that many youth coaches are parental volunteers but I think it's time for leagues and organizations to introduce basic concepts on skill acquisition and deliberate practice.

3. Skill acquisition- This is a part that will get rushed through. Many kids struggle in one area and excel in another. In a team sport, a coach can't wait for everyone to master each skill or your team would never get anywhere. A solution is that coaches need to learn how to ignite players to practice weaknesses on their own. Talk to parents and kids about ways to improve certain areas. A good way for a youngster is to mention how some great athletes also struggled with that skill as well but practiced hard and look at them now. Don't just tell kids they need to practice, churn the passion so that they desire to get better. More info? Read Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code.

4. Creativity- This one I will throw on coaches shoulders because you can't find a 5 year old who isn't creative. Creativity is squashed by coaches who try to control the situation. Instead set up the drill, explain the rules, and watch them play. Studies are starting to come out (check out Mike Williams) that more "coaching"/talking is not the most effective way for kids to learn and transfer skills. Letting the athlete come to conclusions through their path is much more effective than doing what coach says. The kid also will feel more accomplished. Setting up the situation for learning is your most important job as a coach. If not you'll feel like you have a meeting with Gary Cole in Office Space.

5. Rewards- We must reward, but reward the right things. Praise effort, taking risks, and thinking outside the box, instead of ability or "talent." This feedback is critical from long term growth. By rewarding effort over ability we teach them how to find the opportunity that lies in every situation. Rewarding ability can lead to fixed mindsets, big ego's, and the inability to face challenges. More on this go read Carol Dweck's book Mindset.

The overall message is that video games figured out a way to make kids safe playing their game, while giving them a sense of accomplishment and skill. Youth sports in the USA has gone the other direction. I'll end it with a quote from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard,

The solution may be for a lot of the world's problems is to turn around and take a forward step. You can't just keep trying to make a flawed system work."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lessons and Notes from the Seattle Sounders Mentorship

Oh what I thought I knew.....

It's funny looking back at how much I thought I knew when I first started out with a frat boy like confidence on how I could train any athlete, anywhere. Then I heard Gray Cook talk for the first time and was put in my place like a dog who just shat on the carpet and it's owner found out. Tail between my legs ready to listen to anyone and everyone for more advice and knowledge.

I'm still an infant in this coaching world but feel I have worked very hard in my early years to at least be able to hold a respectable conversation about training or be able to ask questions where eyes aren't rolled in the back of their head saying "Here we go again..."

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to travel to Seattle for the Seattle Sounders FC Sports Science mentorship. Sounders fitness coach, David Tenney, set up a great weekend with some great speakers including Patrick Ward, Joel Jamieson, Darcy Norman, Jordan Webb, and of course Coach Tenney. What was even better about this conference was it was limited to only 30 attendees making it open for a lot of discussion, networking, and a relaxed atmosphere.

This conference also put my tail back between my legs. Listening to these guys talk made me realize, yet again, I have oooohhhh so far to go as a coach. I'm just scratching the surface of what there is to learn. Here's some notes and take aways from the weekend

-Stress comes in good and bad forms. You must account for it all and be able to individualize and adjust training in response to it.

-You also must measure this stress in some form. There are expensive, high tech ways (Omegawave) and inexpensive, low tech ways (resting HR and questionnaires). This gives you a much better idea and allows for better communication with your athletes.

-Recovering from stress can happen in many ways. Certain methods are good at certain times and sticking to one way will not work all the time. Example, ice baths are great if you need to recovery in a short period of time from game to game, but might not be the best idea at the beginning of a training program because the inflammation is the bodies way of recovering.

-Soft tissue work doesn't always need to be deep tissue work. Sometimes just stretching the skin will relieve a lot of tension. Patrick showed me this first hand with my calves.

-Recovery reserve, movement reserve, and fatigue reserve- Go read Patrick Wards article here. Huge concepts that help you figure out how to see a bigger picture.

-There are some many systems intertwined that we will never know it all or can say "this one thing will determine..." Learn principles, use methods, measure results, ask questions, analyze and assess. It's a never ending puzzle.

- Fitness/S+C coaches working with team coaches should have disagreements, friction, even arguments. If you don't make it personal and keep the purpose in mind, that is how you will evolve and find more efficient ways. Loved the story Sounders Coach Sigi Schmid told us how he met with UCONN's soccer coach, and he complained about how much he fights with his S+C coach. Sigi's reply, "Yeah, you're supposed to disagree. That's why you're both there."

-Smaller incremental changes are necessary with many of your athletes. Patrick Ward talked about how he has changed a golfers motion so well when they got on the course they had no control over their new motion. He realized he added too much at one time. Add stress, let them recover, add a little more, let them recover.

-Specificity with our drills must be looked with a different lens. It's a measurement between a movement and a skill, that's it. Start from what your trying to improve and go down the chain keeping in mind your original skill. A good way to know if a drill is specific, if you had elite athletes doing it, would they be better at it than an amateur? If so, it's probably specific. Go read everything by Joel Jamieson @

-One main goal we want is to increase the consistency and durability of our athletes. We want their trainablility (their ability to recover from a stress) to improve. Sometimes that means recovering instead of pushing further.

I could go on and on about what I learned at this event. These things are a lot of fun, and I encourage any coach to find 1-3 of these to attend per year. You really do learn a lot from listening to how others think and put pieces of the puzzle together. It's also refreshing to see the top coaches in our industry are so open to share their philosophies and knowledge.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Labeling Our Athletes

Putting labels on our athletes can be a very dangerous use of words. Positive labels such as gifted, special, and naturally talented can be just as damaging as using negative labels like lazy, unfocused, or even worse, a waste of talent. Labels can have a very long lasting affect that can be detrimental to long term athletic development and character.

Every coach should know that labeling your athletes negatively can kill an athletes confidence, self esteem, and performance. And please, stay out of coaching young kids if your only style of coaching is yelling and screaming like a jackass.

But why would calling players gifted, special or naturally talented negatively affect performance? Labels can put players into a fixed mindset that says they can effortlessly get by because of genetics. If we constantly tell kids how gifted they are, a typical thought could creep into there head that says,"If I'm gifted, I don't need to work as hard because it will come automatically." These labels lead to complacency and a sense of entitlement. If they hear that enough, they start to believe that the hard work they put in is no longer necessary. Now next season when they face a kid who's now better than them from last season how will they react? Often, they will back down from the new challenge because it questions what we've identified them as; gifted.

We can counteract this by praising effort instead of ability, and showing great examples of great athletes who continuously out worked their peers.

Do we want to give players any labels whatsoever? I think we absolutely can, if they have deserved them consistently. There are 3 labels I hope my athletes are aspiring to earn. There could certainly be more, but I feel if I encourage these 3 ideas than everything else will fall into place.

1. Be a diligent and hard worker.- I think one of the best compliments anyone can receive is, "Damn he/she works their tail off." It means your willing to pay your dues and take what's yours. I want to slap anyone who says, "I would have been just as good as them if I worked that hard." Oh yea? You know why they are better? Because they worked hard.

How do we teach this? Praising effort over results.

2. A risk taker. Name me someone who's surpassed expectations without taking multiple risks? Don't worry I'll wait......

Name someone who loves to try new things that you don't like to be around...... Again, I'll wait...

How can we encourage risk taking? Showing that opportunity lies within every situation, good or bad, and praising when he/she tries something new.

3. A creative and critical thinker. This comes over long periods of time, and ties very nicely into being a diligent and hard worker. Evaluating your progress and results, asking for feedback, and looking at what others have done in the same situation lies at the heart of creative and critical thinking.

How can we develop creative and critical thinking? Putting young athletes in challenging situations and asking questions instead of giving directions. Lay out the parameters and let them run wild! Like the late George Carlin said, "We must teach kids to question!" (Watch the video below if you're a fan of his humor.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Agility Game: Mirror Drill 2 for 1

This agility game has quickly become one of my favorites. The mirror drill has always been popular, especially with basketball coaches. However, a lot of the time the players become bored with just staying in front for 10 seconds without an objective. This past winter I was working with a semi pro basketball team and challenged them to this version. The leader/offense tries to get two feet outside of the paint before the mirror/defender can touch one foot. I time them for 10 seconds to see how many times they can achieve the 2 for 1. We then rest and switch leaders and mirrors.

It turned out to be much more competitive and players were moving much faster. I use this now with my athletes in the summer and has been a staple agility drill. Over the past couple weeks they have become much more disciplined about staying low and in a tunnel (thanks Lee Taft). It's great to see them taking the concepts and applying them to a reaction stimulus.

Here's a couple videos of one of my small groups having some fun with it this past summer.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ajax FC..... The Science behind Talent Development

Even though it's been over a year since this article came out by Michael Sokolove in the New York Times entitled How a Soccer Star is Made, I felt compelled to write about how far behind the United States is with youth development in sports.

Ajax has always been known as a European soccer power. Since much of the money for soccer is now in the Spanish, English, Italian, and German leagues, AJax has recently been unable to purchase the best players to compete at the highest level. What they did to adapt was create the world's best youth development program nicknamed "De Toekoms"- The Future. It has produced some of the top players in the world including Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, and many players currently on the Dutch National roster.

Ajax now supports it's club by developing these young players into absolute super stars and having the major clubs, who the players would probably end up with anyway, purchase their rights. This has become a very lucrative business, making the clubwell over $80 million.

Now if you talk to many American coaches, they'd probably think these kids are so much better than the players in the States because they play more and against better competition in tournament after tournament starting from the day they can walk. Oh how wrong you would be.....

There are three main points that I will compare from how Ajax develops players to how the USA has been know to develop players.

1. 12 and Under....LTAD vs Peak By Friday
Ajax- The players who are chosen to enter the Ajax club are only allowed to play in one game on the weekend and only practice 3 times a week for about 2 hours a day up until the age of 12. The other times they let them play games outside of structured practice with their friends. They found the value of not having anyone telling them what to do with the ball is essential for future development. Since the country is so passionate about football, it is often not hard for these kids to find games in the streets, parks and neighborhoods. Ajax realizes they want these kids to be world class, not elite 10 year olds. The best part? Ajax pays all expenses but a $12 insurance fee per year.
American- "Is he gifted? Lets have them sign up for 2 clubs teams and play with their school. Averaging over 100 games a year." This logic is not that uncommon. Our coaches only prior experience is playing the sport in high school or college and have not been educated at all on how young athletes acquire skills. We kill their creativity by the constant coaching, which is synonymic with yelling what they're doing wrong, and the pressure the parents get to put them in the next competitive 8-under team. By the way parents, you have to pay for all expenses.

2. Small Sided Games
- This is the heart of the practice with Ajax, especially at a young age. Ajax has done their research and looked at how playing small sided games for young players gives them touches than playing 11 vs 11. It also forces them to make quicker decisions, learn to move and control the ball in a small space, and not get lost on such a big field. Combine this over many years and hours of practice, making players much more effective than ours. Why?
USA- Right away kids are thrown into 11 vs 11 without practicing skills and how to move within the sport. We may use small sided games to warm up, but we will then go into block practices where everything is choreographed and over coached. Instead of putting players into a situation to learn, we instead put them in situations where the is only one way. This kills the creativity of the sport.

Develop the Athlete First
- Ajax has pulled players away from games to teach proper running technique and improve fitness so they have the ability to use their skills through an entire game. They look to change improper running technique and other movement patterns that may hurt them in the future.
USA- This has become much better in the past 5-10 years but it would take a special parent, coach and athlete to take a kid away from the game for a short period of time to work on athleticism. Many parents freak out that their kid won't be seen in the next tournament by the college scout in a 12-Under Show Case.

I certainly don't agree with why Ajax develops their players, as it seems more like slave trade than anything. However, we should take notes on how they put their system together. They encourage long term development, look for the science behind skill, and make sure the body can hold up with the rigors of training as they get older. I'm asking coaches, parents and athletes here in the US to take a second look on how we can improve our youth sports. In other places of the world they have competed and beat us with less selection of athletes and more understanding of talent development.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Agility Game: 4 Corners

Happy 4th of July everyone!

This past week during a summer training session, one of my girls suggested a game called 4 corners. Personally, I had never played or even heard of the game, but I immediately loved what I saw and will use it in the future.

How the Game works: Four cones in a square about 7-10 yards apart. One person is in the middle. Think of the game like stealing a base. The four on the outside are trying to switch with each other, while the person in the middle is racing to a cone before the 4 corners do. Sounds a little confusing but see the picture and watch the video below.
Why it's great?

The kids accelerate, decelerate, react to each other, take chances, and have some fun. Kinda like a couple sports I know....It's a great game for me to use on a day where a linear speed is the focus but also does have elements of change of direction and lateral movement.