Since being introduced to TED talks a couple of years ago, I have been inspired, astonished, enlightened, and engaged into numerous different topics and genius opinions on things that we deal with every day or have never thought to deal with on any day (if you have not already seen this awesome site, check it out at ted.com and prepare to have your mind blown). Most of the time I try and look for lectures that can make me a better business man, coach, friend, or worldly citizen…and this one, like many, has me thinking about whether the points made by Dan Pink can be transposed into how we deal with and create a better experience for young athletes, every day. The talk shown above is a an example of a concept that has me thinking about the way that we are motivating or incentivizing young soccer players to perform at their best, and whether we are doing more to kill the players ability to play their best.
It is our American culture, to try and persuade players to perform well. Look at our professional sports and business contracts, where every positive stat is rewarded by more outrageous amounts of money. I have worked within the NFL setting and have seen players skip training, fake an injury, refuse to workout, yell at coaches for not playing them, etc… all potentially sacrificing the team for their personal statistics.
Although I have heard positive “carrot and stick” rewards within youth soccer by parents ($10 for every goal you score) and coaches (if you lose, you will sprint), but I am not as concerned with these incentives as I am with the effort to motivate through comparison. I have recently heard stories of coaches and clubs ranking players at 9, 10, 11, and 12 years old in comparison to their peers. As well, they are telling these players where they stand at the beginning of the season so that it will “motivate” them to start working harder to get better and move up the ranks.
I will be the first to say that I respect the clubs, in Charlotte, but this does not follow their supposed mission statement that works towards creating the best experience for every family and player. How can we expect young people, who are already trying to figure out who they are in this world and who they are within the game of soccer, to perform at a higher level when you are putting their self worth on the line for game results. I understand that clubs are trying to do the right thing (not really convinced of that, yet) by motivating these players as if they were 18 year old professionals, but this is going to backfire on your development plans sooner than later.
“I am never looking for a result — for example, which boy is scoring the most goals or even who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice how a boy runs. Is he on his forefeet, running lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he seem that he is really loving the game? I think these things are good at predicting how he’ll be when he is older.”
Ronald de Jong – Scout for Ajax Amsterdam
Back to Dan Pink. In this lecture, he presents the idea that if a worker (in the business world) is challenged with a task that has minimal cognitive demands and is incentivized, then the performance is almost always worse than if no reward or punishment was given. Think about the game of soccer, where players are consistently having to scan a large area and multi-task decision with skill execution, over and over again, instantaneously. If we take Dan Pink’s lecture to the world of youth soccer, one can imagine if players are hyper-focused on how they are being judged by their peers and coaches, how every decision makes an impact on whether they are able to play with their friends, next year.
I am consistently hearing, from the players, that their overwhelming concern is to not make a mistake on the field. I am consistently hearing, from the parents, that their overwhelming desire is for their child to be more aggressive. Can you see how these are the antithesis of each other and why the United States tends to develop players that consistently lack creativity and problem solving skills, on the field?
Coaches and clubs need to understand, more clearly, the concept of Long Term Athletic Development, as stated by Istvan Balyi. Within this model, players need to develop an understanding of sport through a progressive model that allows them to create skill sets that build effectively on each other. If one or more of these stages is skipped, there can be a stunt in athletic development and a detrimental reversal of performance. I have outlined these stages and the suggested ages of each stage below:
- The FUNdamental Stage = 6-11 years old
- The Training-to-train Stage = 11-14 years old
- The Training-to-compete Stage = 14-20 years old
- The Training-to-win Stage = 20 and older
My point by showing this model to you is how, by the example of ranking players at 9-12 years old and misunderstanding the impact of celebrating the wrong parts of the game, we are forcing players to skip the crucial years of development that set up an ability to properly understand how to win, at the end of their athletic career. Jeremy Boone, an expert in Sports Axiology (the science of decision making in sport), states that an overwhelming 90% of young athletes have no concept or definition of competition. Meaning, that coaches are expecting players to act and react based on our own mature ideas of how players should have a desire to win at ages, but in reality these 11 year old’s have no experience and have never had “competition” or “success” clearly defined for them.
I can only hope that parents can understand this concept, coaches start to adapt to these issues, and players are reaping the benefits. I can definitely tell you that at The Soccer Performance University, at Performance Unlimited, we work to give every player the best environment and training programs that will continue to develop the Long Term Athletic Development Model, that Balyi has laid out for us.