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Precocity, Player Rankings and Early Specialization

We rank third graders. I don’t know who, because I don’t look at player rankings, but someone ranks 3rd grade basketball players.

I read some comments about women’s volleyball rankings yesterday. The comments said that women’s volleyball rankings are a far better predictor of college success because only one group ranks players and they do so after their senior year of high school. In basketball, who doesn’t rank players? It is the easiest way to sell subscriptions to a web site: rank a bunch of kids and get their parents to buy a subscription to see if they are ranked. It gives people something to argue about on message boards, which keeps them coming back and posting more, which increases the hits and the advertising revenue. It’s all a big business.

The problem with ranking third graders or eight graders is that people want to be right. I trained a player a couple times when he was in eighth grade. He was ranked as one of the top 8th graders in the region and invited to the Area All-Star ShowCase Spectatcular. Good for him. Now, he stopped playing basketball in 10th grade to focus on football. He never played varsity basketball. However, he was invited to the same All-Star Spectacular in 12th Grade! The people never bothered to take his name off the list. He was still considered a top prospect and he did not even play the sport any longer and never really showed anything more than the size needed to excel.

When we rate players at a young age, two things happen: (1) We build high expectations for a kid which puts pressure on the player to perform constantly and justify his lofty ranking every time he steps on the court because the haters wait with their wireless internet cards to bash the player as soon as he has a bad game; and (2) We create a self-fulfilling prophesy where the rankers want to see the player do well to show that they are right, so they introduce the player to trainers and AAU teams and get the player free stuff, which creates the Entitlement Affliction: players and parents believe they have something special which means they deserve something in return.

The problem is that precocity is largely a myth. Just because someone excels at nine-years-old or 14-years-old does not guarantee success. In the volleyball argument, some suggested that basketball coaches do a much better job developing players than volleyball coaches, which explains why the rankings are more accurate predictors for volleyball. I disagree. Some of it has to do with sex (boys vs. girls) and different ages of maturation, but much of it has to do with inaccurate rankings because rankings do not measure the important things like work ethic, desire, competitiveness and the like because one cannot see those things in a brief glimpse of a player during a game.

Malcolm Gladwell writes:

We think of precociousness as an early form of adult achievement, and, according to Gladwell, that concept is much of the problem. “What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.”

To be a prodigy in music, for example, is to be a mimic, to reproduce what you hear from grown-up musicians. Yet only rarely, according to Gladwell, do child musical prodigies manage to make the necessary transition from mimicry to creating a style of their own. The “prodigy midlife crisis,” as it has been called, proves fatal to all but a handful would-be Mozarts. “Precociousness, in other words, is not necessarily or always a prelude to adult achievement. Sometimes it’s just its own little discrete state.”

A “precocious” third grader is oftentimes almost a year older than his peers and therefore is bigger, stronger and faster. However, over time, these size differences balance out. The future seven-footer is likely gangly and awkward as a nine-year-old or even a 13-year-old. What constitutes an exceptional skill level at nine or 13 differs at 18 or 19-years-old. We get excited when a kid can throw the ball in the basket from the three-point line at nine-years-old: however, does that skill translate when he is fully grown?

Early acquisition of skills which is often what we mean by precocity may thus be a misleading indicator of later success, said Gladwell. “Sometimes we call a child precocious because they acquire a certain skill quickly, but that skill turns out to be something where speed of acquisition is not at all important. We don’t say that someone who learned to walk at four months is a better walker than the rest of us. It’s not really a meaningful category.”

Kids shoot differently at 13-years-old than they will at 18-years-old. They use more legs, they dip the ball to get strength, they shoot from a lower release point. When they shoot consistently at a young age, does that translate to better adult shooting? Or, does it lead to a sense of satisfaction and a desire not to change the shot and learn a higher release or quicker shot?

In music, people point to Mozart. However, “First of all, the music he composes at four isn’t any good,” Gladwell stated bluntly. In the same respect, we get excited about the “best” 4th grader, but does he really play good basketball? When he reaches to get steals because officials do not call fouls or dribbles coast to coast because he is faster, is that goo basketball, at an adult level?

Rather than physical gifts, are there better indicators of future success. In academia, Gladwell points to Einstein:

A better poster child for what precociousness really entails, Gladwell hinted, may thus be the famous intellectual late-bloomer, Einstein. Gladwell cited a biographer’s description of the future physicist, who displayed no remarkable native intelligence as a child but whose success seems to have derived from certain habits and personality traits curiosity, doggedness, determinedness that are the less glamorous but perhaps more essential components of genius.

If a 13-year-old is tall and fast, but lacks determination and a work ethic, will he be a top player when he is a senior in high school? Gladwell used his personal example of his running career:

“I was a running prodigy,” he said bluntly. But being a prodigy didn’t forecast future success in running. After losing a major race at age 15, then enduring other setbacks and loss of interest, Gladwell said, he gave up running for a few years. Taking it up again in college with the same dedication as before he faced a disappointing truth: “I realized I wasn’t one of the best in the country I was simply okay.”

Of the 15 nationally ranked runners in his age class at age 13 or 14, only one of that group had been a top runner in his running prime, at age 24. Indeed, the number-one miler at age 24 was someone Gladwell had known as one of the poorer runners when they were young Doug Consiglio, a “gawky kid” of whom all the other kids asked “Why does he even bother?”

The early success often leads to a fixed mindset, where the child believes his talent is innate. As long as he is on top, that’s fine. However, when faced with a challenge, or setback, the answer is often to give up, as there is no sense in working hard if talent is innate and it has been proven that you are not the chosen one.

Labeling a child precocious creates more pressure to perform. I don’t understand the parents who seek opportunities for their child to be rated. People tell me all the time that if a kid is not rated they will not be recruited. I can list a dozen kids I have helped get to college programs who nobody had ever heard of and who had never been ranked. Colleges use rankings to get names. However, nobody gets scholarships based on their ranking. Coaches watch players and make their own decisions. I don’t know any college coaches who care who the top 5th graders are (except maybe Billie Gillespie!). Nobody wins awards for being the top 5th grader. Spending an entire childhood worried about player rankings and college scholarships ruins the childhood experience and confuses the destination with the journey.

To develop talent, it is more important to impart and develop skills like industriousness, work ethic, desire and competitiveness than to concentrate on maintaining one’s player ranking.

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