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Reconciling Long Term Athlete Development with the Scholarship Chase

I linked the post “How Many Games Is Too Many?” on another site, and a response led me to post an old chapter from Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development – “An Introduction to Long Term Athlete Development.

This drew another response:

Coach B,
While I agree that your model is most likely the best for long-term athletic development, it doesn’t take into account the real world chase for college athletic scholarships. Most kids that get scholarships are on the college radar by their sophomore year, age ~15. The kid needs to have already acquired a significant amount of game-specific skill by that age, especially if he/she is not blessed with excellent size. So, based on the 10,000 hour rule, they need to have completed a lot of game-specific skill training.

Anyhow, I’m not disagreeing with you, just trying to point out that in the real world, skill development may need to start a couple years earlier than the long-term model suggests, especially for the undersized player.

I think there are some presumptions to clear up:

First, I do not agree that most players who receive scholarships are on a college’s radar by 15-years-old. The top 10% of each class typically is  identified early (and plenty of players receive mail), but there are coaches at the DI and DII levels looking to identify players for the 2010 class and signing day is weeks away.

A lot changes: when the class of 2010 was 15-years-old, Demetrius Walker was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and heralded as the next LeBron. He finished his senior year outside the top 100 players.

Second, on the topic of recruiting, colleges recruit potential. The NBA drafts potential. Yesterday, I read about a 6’11 player who red-shirted last season at Antelope Valley College who verbally committed to USC. He reportedly did not play high school basketball and walked into the AVC gym last year and walked onto the team as a 6’8 beginner (ah, potential).

He has yet to play a regular season basketball game, yet USC has offered, and he has accepted, a scholarship. Why? Because he is 6’11 with athleticism. Again, he never played in high school and has not played a day in junior college. They are recruiting potential. There are literally thousands of more accomplished and more experienced players that USC could offer, but USC chose the inexperienced 6’11 kid because of his potential.

Third, the LTAD plan is not about delaying or ignoring skill development. Instead, the LTAD plan focuses on skill development. The LTAD plan argues against the Peak by Friday coaches concerned only with winning the next game who ignore skill development. These are the coaches who put the tallest player under the basket and tell him not to dribble.

The LTAD plan argues for a more sensible practice to game ratio so players have more time to develop skills, as skill development does not occur in competitive environments.

Fourth, the 10,000-hour rule does not mean that players have to play 10,000 hours before they receive a scholarship. The 10,000-hour rule is a general rule to describe the background of an expert performer.

Few high school seniors who have signed scholarships are expert players. They may be better than their peers or show more potential than their peers, but they are not experts.

LeBron James is probably the greatest high school player of the last decade, yet in last week’s Sports Illustrated article about Idan Ravin, Ravin said to James (a six-year pro by now):

“You are far and away the most talented player in the league, way more talented than Kobe…But you don’t have a go-to move in isolation, you can’t handle the ball that well, and you can’t shoot, really. Think about that.”

Does that description sound like a trainer describing an expert player (to say nothing of James’ lack of post play)? If James has that many flaws in his game, how many high school seniors are expert performers?

Furthermore, the 10,000-hour rule goes beyond just basketball:

Expert performance in sports where peak performance generally occurs after the age of 20 can be achieved with 3,000-4,000 hours of sport-specific training (i.e. deliberate practice). The DMSP instead suggests that 10,000 hours of total involvement in sport (taking into account involvement throughout development in deliberate play, other sports, and organized competitions) is a better measure of expertise in sport. (Farrow, et. al)

Therefore, we should not rush players through 10,000 hours of basketball practice and games. Instead, playing other sports and just playing are part of the total development picture.

Finally, “acquiring game skill” does not require an organized tournament. How many players acquire game skill while running their coach’s set plays?

Instead, deliberate play – playing against adults at the park, pick-up games with similarly skilled players, playing at open gyms – contribute as much or more to the development of game skill.

However, in the pursuit of the scholarship, we have ignored this deliberate play and replaced these learning experiences with training with a shooting coach or playing in another tournament.

The LTAD is certainly not an anti-skill development plan. Instead, it is a philosophy based around the best way to develop skills in a sport where players’ performance peaks in their 20s, regardless of when the scholarship is offered or accepted.

  • Farrow, Damian; Baker, Joe; and MacMahon, Clare. (2008). Developing Sport Expertise. New York: Rutledge.
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