In professional sports the off-season can provide just as much intrigue and excitement as the games on the field.
This can be an important time for teams to improve their rosters through free agency, the drafting of young prospects and trades. The NFL off-season is just about to wrap up as teams begin to report to training camp in the days ahead and fans are excited to see if the new additions to the team can make a difference in the win column.
In Major League Baseball the off-season is referred to as the “hot-stove” because something is always “cooking” as general mangers burn up the phone lines with potential deals. This past Friday was the MLB trade deadline and it’s always an action packed times as teams either go all in or look to reboot for the next season.
When your team does not meet expectations there is a knee-jerk reaction by fans to bring in talent upgrades from outside the organization. And it seems that the management for many organizations are just as tempted as their fans by the high-priced, shiny new talent on the market. They envision the impact that a power-hitting outfielder or proven bullpen closer can make for their play-off aspirations.
There is another aspect of the off-season that promises a big return on investment but is seemingly marginalized by management and downright dismissed by zealous fans. This method of improvement is often overshadowed by the immediate “sizzle” of outside talent acquisition, but more often than not it makes or breaks a team’s fortunes in the season ahead.
Whatever happened to the tried and true philosophy of improvement from within?
One of the many reasons I love baseball is the scouting and development aspect of the game. The minor leagues have historically been the best way to build a sustained winner on the field.
Granted, there are plenty of high-priced prospects that are drafted each summer but just as many athletes that populate current MLB rosters were middle to late round draft choices or were undrafted altogether. Consider that 2% of players ever drafted into professional baseball play in the Major Leagues. The attrition rate is also extremely high and organizations are flooded with new prospects each season.
The more talented a prospect is the more development time they are afforded. But somehow the “lesser” prospects always seem to emerge and maximize their abilities through good old-fashioned grit and determination. And that is the most important factor in achieving a high level of success on the field of play and in the game of life (dedication/perseverance). Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!
As coaches/talent evaluators we need to do a better job of promoting this aspect of youth sports. And quite frankly it is the area that America suffers from the most in terms of developing young athletes.
We place too much emphasis on finding “elite” 10 year-olds, while other countries do a much better job of creating systems that support young athletes through the athletic development process. Systems that bring the athletes to a point of talent maximization in the late teen years or even later, when the stakes are the highest.
Becoming a great athlete is non-linear. To maximize your abilities there should be plenty of mistakes and “failures” early on, this makes the athlete more resilient and durable over the long haul. The concept of improvement from within should especially be emphasized at the amateur level (high school and club teams/organizations).
All to often on the travel/club circuit athletes jump from team to team if they don’t experience immediate success. Going through the “grind” is absolutely necessary to develop elite/sustainable skill. The current athletic development process in the U.S. does not allow for this.
AAU and many travel organizations are created by adults to serve their needs first and foremost, it does not serve the best interests of the developing young athlete. We force kids to choose a path before they even hit puberty and if they have the misfortune of being born after April they are at a huge developmental disadvantage, and that's not hyperbole it's the truth!
We all assume that Michael Jordan was born to be great basketball player… Consider this letter written to Jordan from his coach Dean Smith after his sophomore season at the University of North Carolina.
Even at the NBA level Michael Jordan was never satisfied, every off-season he worked to improve one aspect of his game. Jordan was best known for his high-flying drives to the basket but as he aged and defenses began to limit that element of his game he was forced to adapt. One season he came back with a pull-up mid-range jumper that took his game to another level. And when he started to lose a little (emphasis on a little) lift on his jumper he went to work that off-season and developed a low post back to the basket game that took his skill set to a level few can even imagine.
Additionally Jordan was one of the early adopters of strength and conditioning and was renowned for outworking friends and teammates in the weight room. Jordan separated himself from the competition a little bit here and there and when you add it all up at he was arguably the best of all time.
Jordan likely had elite athletic ability from a young age but I doubt it was that much greater than his professional peers. The quality that allowed him to continue to excel and move past the competition was his intrinsic drive, competitive enthusiasm.
We place such high expectations on kids at such a young age that we absolutely take their competitive enthusiasm and spirit and squeeze it dry. The attrition/burnout rate in youth sports is extremely high ( a 70-80% rate by the time a child is 15 years of age).
There are plenty of young athletes in every community that would have excelled if we had a system that encouraged them to have fun, explore and discover their unique talents. This system should also encourage them to work hard at improving to gradually develop their skills while also building their self-efficacy and intrinsic drive.
A successful youth athletic development system encourages (rather than discourages by way of early cuts before middle/high school and grouping teams by chronological age) participation is absolutely the key to long-term athletic development. When kids stay involved of their own accord they develop the essential element for maximizing their athletic potential and that is the intrinsic motivation to improve from within. They have to want it for themselves!
As youth sport in America currently stands it appears that the coaches and parents want it more than our kids do and that is a recipe for long-term athletic degeneration.