Thursday, April 29, 2010

US Olympic Committee Training Design Conference

Early Specialization and Deep Practice

As I was sitting in a conference room at the US Olympic Training Center, listening to World Championsip and Gold medal coaches from several sports, a more comprehensive view of the problems with early specialization came into perspective.
The Talent Code
Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code gave the keynote address and discussed some of the concepts in his book.  It's a great read for anyone involved in developing talent, whether it's athletic, music or other.

Daniel travelled around the world observing what was happening at talent hotbeds.  Sports and music academies that were repeatedly producing champions against all statistical odds.  He wanted to find what they have in common.  Many of the things

Early Specialization
Many coaches there agreed that in general we have too much specialization and year round competition at an early age. The lack of physical education in schools was also a key issue facing development of high level athletes in the future. How many champions are being lost because they aren’t being exposed to sports and physical activity in school? How many are burnt out by continual competition in a single sport? How many overuse injuries could be prevented? How many are missing their true sport calling because they only play one?

As I was giving the cry of too much specialization at an early age, many of the coaches were talking about the importance of our US athletes spending more time playing the sport. They were saying that we are already more athletic in many cases, but we need better skills and better ability to read the game. US athletes are athletic, but they aren’t as creative or as tactically savvy as many other countries.

It is hard to argue that if our biggest problems aren’t athleticism and injury we should be playing less. To develop the tactical awareness you clearly need to play the game. To develop precise ball skills seen in volleyball and soccer you need to be playing with the ball. So playing year round would help if you know you are going to be a high level player in some sports.

We also had some discussion revolving around the so called “10,000 hour rule.” Well if I need 10,000 hours to become a master at a skill, isn’t getting started earlier (early specialization) and practicing it year round a good idea? It would seem so.

However, as the discussion continued, some other thoughts emerged from many of our elite US coaches. While they want the athletes to play the game more, in many cases they wish the adult coaches would get out of the way. “Too much time is sport is being driven by coaches, and not the players. It drill centered, instead of centered on playing the game” remarked one of the best coaches in the world with at least one gold medal to his resume.

As this line of discussion progressed over the 3 days, it became clear that the coaches advocating more pay, weren’t advocating the year round, organized competition, coach driven, and drill center activity we see in sport. For younger athletes quality play and skill development can happen in 1/3 the time when lead by a quality coach compared to what they see happening.
Deep Practice
This tied us back to some of the ideas presented in The Talent Code. One of the key ones is that champions practice better than others and great coaches create an environment for “deep practice.” We need to understand it’s not about the 10,000, but the practice that is built in that time. Just spending 10,000 hours won’t get you to the top. It has to be focused and engaged. Note this doesn’t mean just doing an activity – it means continuously pushing the limits of your ability, always operating just out of your comfort zone, making mistakes and learning to fix them, getting comfortable with that dynamic of improving by failing. And it’s making sure that time is spent doing the activities that you need to improve, whether it’s ball handling in soccer, technique in tennis, or tactical awareness in football.

As we discussed this concept of “deliberate” or “deep” practice, it was clear that playing full sided competitive games in organized tournaments doesn’t do this. Numerous examples were given, but one of our US National Team coaches in soccer talked about it well.

He illustrated that if you have a 90 minute game plus 10 minute half you have spent 100 minutes on a game. Add to that 3 games as is often seen in a tournament weekend and we have 300 minutes. Five hours.

In a typical game the time each player has the ball isn’t distributed evenly, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume it is. That’s 90 minutes divided by 22 players on the field, which means the each player has the ball for all of 4 minutes and 10 seconds. Do it for 3 games and now you have maybe 13 minutes of skill development with the ball. Yes, there is tactical development, but even then how much of that time is wasted when the layer may not be that involved in the space of play?

Thirteen minutes. As the coach pointed out he could have a well designed practice with various individual, small sided and situational games that would give each player twice as much time with the ball, in just an hour. One hour versus 5.  Add to that the concept of "deep practice" and you get even more out of that time.

Which is going to help that player develop the basic fundamental skills better? Go crazy and take that time to 2 hours over the weekend and you’ve quadrupled the skills development.

Does this mean don’t play in competition? No. None of them were saying that. What they were saying is we don’t need our future champions to be playing in organized competition, or in low yield practice, year round in just one sport.