I’ve written about athletic development mostly because it helps me begin to make sense of a phenomenon that is wildly complex (to me) and not all that well understood (by me) despite the decades of research and the bright minds conducting it. I’ve never written because I thought I was some kind of a sage who needed to tell people stuff. Mostly my writing is equal parts extended question and invitation to exchange ideas, seasoned of course with lame fart jokes.
After several years of looking at the research, I remain fascinated with athletic development, but also nudged by a nagging sense that the boat is just being missed. There are a lot of athletic development models out there, loaded with buzz words and arcane concepts and theory and practice, and all of them have some merit. But none of them are the Holy Grail—and as far as I’ve been able to tell, none of the high-profile prescriptive models have any longitudinal data supporting their prescriptions (could be going on as we speak, don’t know). I’m not saying any of these models claim to be the last word, but it seems to be human nature to model the shit out of shit. People want complex processes PowerPointed into easy-to-digest step-by-step guides that resemble those dumb-downed quick start instructions that come with high-tech gizmos. You know, cut to the chase.
Our lust for Minute-Rice-magic-bullet solutions puts even meticulously derived models at risk of oversimplification in application, making the very essence of models—that they are models—their biggest flaw. After a few years of building an evidence base for The Brand X Method™ and of trying to articulate its substance, I’ve come to a conclusion that many will pshaw. When it comes to the entire enterprise of athletics, of sports, of lifelong physical activity and fitness, my thought is all a kid needs to find a lifetime of gratification is a sense of joy and the right space to flow.
It’s axiomatic to say that kids should have fun with their sports. Have fun. What’s that mean exactly? Smiles and high fives and no scoreboard and the snack shack? I’ve always thought it was more than that, and now I’m starting to feel something out.
I’d heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (it’s pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee but I’m calling him MC) concept of flow a few years ago as I was wading through some literature on talent development. I even bought MC’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, but never got around to reading it. In fact, I only recently learned a bit about flow in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. It’s a romp through the world of “action-adventure athletes,” who Kotler argues are not only on the extreme bleeding edge of human performance but are also extending that edge at an astounding rate thanks mostly to their ability to “hack” into flow.
I can’t say for certain whether this was Kotler’s intent, but he turns the notion of long-term athletic development on its head. Who needs a highly rationalized, rigid development system when you can tap into flow and FSU? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a question of snapping your fingers and you’re in the flow and suddenly you’re all Laird Hamilton dropping into Teahupo’o. It takes a ton of time (maybe even 10,000 hours) to surf like Laird or skate like Danny Way. But it’s nearly cliché that these action-adventure guys and gals are hedonistic, impulsive, live-in-the-moment motherfuckers; how’s it that these pleasure-seeking party animals could work so obsessively to become the best of the best at doing death-defying shit? Well, flow may be the greatest high in all existence* and I suspect it makes anything you happen to be doing a whole bunch of fun. Meaning, like play.
Play-Flow Fun Factory
Here are a few qualities linked to flow:
- The activity offers the right balance between challenge and your skills; it’s tough, but doable.
- Goals and feedback are clear.
- Action and awareness merge such that the activity is nearly automatic and you cease to be aware of yourself as separate from what you’re doing.
- Total, undistracted focus is achieved, and self-consciousness disappears.
- There is a sense of control, often of risks, that may not actually be true control, and it removes the worry of failure.
- Time is distorted.
- The activity is an end to itself, that is, it’s intrinsically rewarding or autotelic, which is a word you shouldn’t use in casual conversation. Unless, of course, you want to sound like a pompous twat.
Flow can be addictive, again helping to explain the so-called adrenalin junkies’ obsession to push beyond the bounds of what we thought was possible. Flow also shares some characteristics with play. Significantly, play expert Stuart Brown (2010, p.17) cites MC when he describes play as providing “freedom from time” and “diminished consciousness of self.” Also significant is Brown’s assertion that “[p]lay is a state of mind, rather than an activity” (p.60). Strikes me that this state of mind—would you call it playfulness?—could provide a robust framework, a medium of sorts, within which flow can be more easily tapped by those of us who do not absolutely require the state to survive, say, free climbing a sheer cliff. In the TBXM™ Advanced Kids Course, we draw on Brown to characterize play as
- Voluntary—you don’t have to do it, you want to do it
- Having an inherent attraction—duh, it’s fun
- Offering improv opportunities—encourages creativity
- Fostering the desire to keep doing it—duh, it’s fun
These attributes line up real well with flow, I think. They also align with key aspects of physical literacy. If a playful kid finds flow, watch out. Now you’re edging toward the free jazz space of creativity and innovation—anything is possible.
Hustle & Flow
From the moment the little squid batted his first ball at age 3, I understood intuitively that the boy would stick with baseball only under particular circumstances. Much like The Brand X Method™ has been doing since 2004, creating a link between fun and fitness for kids, I wanted my son to find enjoyment in playing the game of baseball. Learning the rules, learning the skills, learning sportsmanship and how to compete, the key to all of that is never losing sight of the fact that he was playing the game of baseball. That key proved to be an elusive acquisition for the boy for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here.
He was always a standout on the baseball field, a perennial all-star, yet he never seemed to stand out the way I thought he ought to. Maybe that sounds like a particular species of sports dad, but, well, no. See, it was and remains immensely important to me that I view my kids with as much objectivity as possible when it comes to the interactional stuff of the social world such as sports participation. Pure objectivity when it comes to your kids is likely a myth, but I think I’ve done okay. Point being, for the last decade, the squid was so often the epitome of FSU potential, like an unloaded .44 Magnum.
There’s a theoretical strand out there in the literature centered on the concept of “psychological characteristics of developing excellence” (PCDEs) that suggests psychobehavioral or metacognitive factors facilitate athletic development. Basically, if you’re a head case who lacks a mental game, you’ll not achieve much in sports. That resonates with me because I’ve always been interested in the mental side of sports. When I played sports (and this includes CrossFit) my (many) failures were entirely mental, as were my successes. The one season I coached rec baseball, my only goal was to positively impact the kids’ mental game. My suspicion was that the kids were better baseball players than they realized, they just had to realize.
Baseball got deep into my kid’s head, less obsession than poltergeist. Wow, can he be his own worst enemy. So many lost opportunities for him to bask in the joy of his athleticism that an intriguing question occurred to me: Can someone be considered “talented” (whatever that means) absent a mental game on a par with his or her physical abilities? How effective is an unloaded .44? I began wondering, despite all of this unharnessed potential I saw in the squid, if maybe he just didn’t have what it took to excel at baseball.
Cuz the fact is, this particular .44 Magnum squid has often been loaded. You know what I mean if, for example, you’ve seen him participating in one of The Brand X Method™ Teen Gauntlets. It’s fucking peculiar how he shines out there. Frankly. For a kid prone to head-casery? Excelling in that sort of environment? The fitness competition? Any individual sport, really. You, alone under the microscope, perfumed with the all-too-familiar bouquet of rat-panic and disappointment, surrounded by Caligula’s court licking its collective chops in anticipation of your imminent choke. Course, I could just be projecting.
Because… Sisu squid. Nothing bothers him during a fitness comp. Nothing. For instance, a week prior to the October Gauntlet, after the events were announced, he couldn’t achieve an L-sit hold. At all. Period. All around him during TBXM™ Teen Class, kids were holding L-sits, while he just kept failing. If this had been some baseball-related skill or drill, he likely would’ve been angry, frustrated, close to or in tears. Instead, he DGAF-ed. “I have a week,” he said airily.
A week later, the Gauntlet’s one skill event called for 1:00 of double-unders, immediately into a max L-sit hold, immediately into 1:00 of mountain climbers. When his heat was called, the squid tore himself away from what was undoubtedly a serious giggle-and-goof-filled conversation with his Brand X friends and kinda pimp-rolled out on to the comp floor and, with a flip of that hair of his, spun a minute’s worth of double-unders** without a break before PR-ing his L-sit and then doing a slew of burpee-rivaling mountain climbers. Cool as a cuke.
The squid’s been playing organized baseball since he was four, including, as I’ve discussed quite a bit, three intensive years of high-level travel ball. He’s developed some impressive physical skills, and over that time, he has displayed brilliance. On the pitcher’s mound—sniper squid. In the outfield—acrobat squid. Even at the plate—Jeter squid. These proverbial flashes only occurred when he felt playful and Zen, that is, in a state of flow, a state of not giving a fuck. And over that time, I got pretty good at knowing when it was DGAF time for him—when the .44 was loaded. From the stands, I could read his body language, his eyes, the vibe emanating from him, especially at the plate—the site of most of his mental micro-defeats.
My kid doesn’t stress when it comes to this fitness comp stuff. Not sure why. Although at Brand X we work hard to create a culture of success for the kids, I know that’s only part of the answer—an important part for sure, but still only part. Because the critical reason environmental variables can impact a kid’s development is the kid himself, and it’s bewildering to comprehend the whirr and click of internal gears, switches, and relays that not only allow the outside in but give flight to all of the training a kid has been exposed to.
This summer, the squid found himself on his rec league’s 13U end-of-year tournament team. To say that the team culture left something to be desired is to be kind. The three coaches squabbled amongst themselves; practices were uninspired borefests (even by rec league standards) liberally sprinkled with disciplinary jogging; and some of the players openly disrespected the coaches, their teammates, and the game with unearned arrogance. Not at all what I would call a culture that fostered success. Especially not for a head-casing kid like my son. I just wanted it to end swiftly so the kid could take the summer off and recharge for high school sports. But something pretty damn interesting happened.
For no reason that I could discern, the .44 kinda pimp-rolled into tournament season fully loaded. And did a whole lotta Dirty Harry-like damage. I finally saw what he was capable of. More importantly, he saw it: the five-tool squid. He punctuated his all-star run with a single moment he’d been hankering for since the EOY tourney began. He wanted nothing more than a chance to pitch against a former travel ball teammate, a six-foot-plus-tall kid many consider to be one of the best hitters in the country. It was a bitchin’ David and Goliath moment***. One that ended after a single pitch. A black-souled curve ball that Goliath mightily dribbled off the end of his bat for a fielder’s choice out to end the inning.
Far more significant than the squid’s actual performance was the fact that for the entire tournament, he had fun and DGAF. For a sustained period of time, he played the game of baseball. Because he was playing, he found flow, and from there he found success after success. For the first time maybe ever, the boy seemed truly excited and confident about baseball. Excited and, dude, happy. And that’s the real success here—nothing succeeds like success. Play and flow open a kid up to optimizing training and learning by encouraging adventure, creativity, and envelope pushing and inspiring a lifelong pursuit of all kinds of sports and other activities simply for the fun and gratification of it. Adherence to some rigid paint-by-numbers model becomes unnecessary, and that means coaches can explore, create, and test the margins too, finding themselves forever learning, gaining new experience, becoming better coaches.
Come Out and Play
“The kid comes out.” That’s what the broadcaster said during the replay of David Wright’s smile after his 2015 World Series Game 3 homerun.
When it comes to sports, the kid should never be in, but the professionalization of youth sports chases the kid inside and tries to drag out some homunculus of a pro “athlete.” Professionalization is the exact opposite of play and playfulness, and where there’s no play, there can be no flow of the type I witnessed with the squid during the EOY tournament.
Our goal should be changing the failed narrative of athletic development from chasing the brass ring of youth eliteness to pursuing physical literacy, durability and longevity, lifelong players. This is a critical point. We fully understand that some kids (like maybe Goliath above) are destined for athletic greatness, pro contracts, world records, and the history books, so our concerns over the current system may not resonate with them, or really with their parents and coaches. Our mission has never been to forge superstars—they tend to burn hot and fast—but rather to do what’s best for ALL kids in a way that serves them for their entire lives. One way we do this is through The Brand X Method™ Training Centers, which are intended to create spaces all over the world for kids to come out and play, to hack flow, and to discover that their margins have no margins.
* I’m not speaking figuratively; the flow state is linked to some tremendously powerful biochemistry.
** The jump rope is a plaything. A toy. Which might explain why the kids are the best rope-jumpers in our gym. Add to that the fact that if you’ve mastered the double-under then you know that the cadence is like a rat-a-tat ghost dance. You lose yourself to the groove. I’d even say you find flow.
*** A couple of other former teammates spotted my son at a game, and I watched one of them nudge the other and say, “Look, there’s [the Squid].” He held his hand palm down at his waist to signal that he keenly observed that my son was still tiny. My boy has become steadily more self-conscious about his size as his peers all shoot to towering heights. It’s hard to counter the fact of his late bloom and genetic inheritance, but I doubt that these bigger kids can, like my son, snatch over body weight and deadlift over double body weight for reps. Yeah, I can’t do much about changing the reality of my son’s stature beyond encouraging him to keep training. The power surge hasn’t even begun.photo credit: theinertia.com
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