“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.” – Tibetan proverb
When my son’s baseball team rolled into Cooperstown, New York, for the 2014 12U tournament you woulda thunk that the gods had descended from Asgard. In a sad way, there’s a bit of truth there: Southern California is the mystical Land of Year-Round Baseballdom. When you do something all of the time, you get pretty good at it. The vast majority of other teams hailed from the mortal realms of the Midwest and East where you don’t get to play baseball all year round. They are simply unable to get that good.
During pool play, kids and adults would file into the little stadiums and watch my son’s team decimate yet another hapless crew as if it were feeding time for the lions. I recall after watching our boys hit six consecutive homeruns, one kid whose team was scheduled to play them the next day looked at his teammate with a sad smile, put his finger to his head, and pulled the trigger. Fun for the whole family.
At the end of pool play, out of 104 teams, my son’s team held the first seed. After meeting a little stiffer resistance during the elimination round, my son’s team predictably reached the championship, which is played in the park’s fantabulous Little Major Stadium. There they quite literally met their match: a team from the So Cal dominion known as the Greater Los Angeles Area, an eldritch wasteland overrun by gargantuan man-children. But this team was afeard that it could not defeat the mighty San Diegans and paid the way for a gunslinging pitcher from an elite squad of fierce early bloomers, a 12-year-old who looked 16 and threw like he was 18*. And so after an epic battle, my son’s team suffered defeat, erasing a week of freak-show dominance because if you don’t win now and now and now, then you haven’t really won enough or maybe even ever.
My son sat out that game. As he had the three games before (the team played five games that last day). He didn’t play because he wasn’t one of the top nine players and this was the championship round of a prestigious tournament and the head coach made it clear as families hustled to pay the thousands of dollars for the cross-country trip that only the best would play when the shit got real.
Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes
He was not the best player on that team, not by a longshot. But here’s something: These 12-year-olds hit 300+-foot homeruns but were not strong enough to do legit push-ups; they threw hard, but inefficiently. They had unsafe jumping and landing mechanics and some were so inflexible they were unable to get near the bottom of a squat. Many of them got clownish, mopey, and even surly if they had to raise their heart rates; they considered any PT work to be punishment rather than beneficial to their performance.
None of that mattered. Not a whit. Because they hit the ball 300 feet now and throw so hard now and win and win and win. These kids are gonna be freshman varsity ball players. Why the fuck do they need to do a push-up or squat when they got that kinda game? Good question.
To reiterate, my squid is not nearly the kind of badass ball player as some of these kids. But my boy can do chest-to-deck push-ups and chest-to-bar pull-ups and muscle-ups and handstand walks and squats and when his heart rate jacks up he doesn’t tap out, he digs in. No, he doesn’t throw as hard as these kids, some of whom outweigh him by 50+ pounds, but he throws harder than his squidly stature would suggest and never with elbow pain (although he has a filthy curveball that can be dark as sin). Again, parents don’t give a shit about whatever weird antics he gets up to at my Podunk gym when he doesn’t hit moonshot homeruns like their kids. No, not quite badass. Not yet.
In Part 1, I chatted a bit about my kid’s basketball “academy.” The practices are well-organized and the instruction is almost nonstop. It’s been a great learning experience for him. Of note, the coach runs a decent warm-up and includes some agility drills. He has spoken to the kids about the importance of flexibility and power in basketball, in particular for jumping, which is a critical skill in this sport. He even ran the kids through some plyometric drills** at the end of one practice. All good stuff, but…
The players are punished with exercise if the coach feels that they’re screwing around or even as part of certain shooting drills (eg, you miss a free throw, the entire team sprints). That’s no way for kids to see GPP as valuable to their sports performance.
Along with sprinting, the other punishment is push-ups. Except for one kid (and we know who that is), none of the players are doing anything that resembles a push-up (no, not even the football players). Broken planks, outta whack hand and shoulder positions, nonexistent ranges of motion. These push-up abortions can’t even qualify as punishment because there’s no effort involved. No effort, no benefit. And none of the coaches on the floor correct the movement, although sometimes they toss out a questionable cue. Anyone who’s had to endure one of my push-up mini-rants will understand just how fucking annoying it is for me to suffer through such displays of utter bullshit. Drives me batshit. Fucking hate it. I hate it. Fuck.
Then there was a video I was shown said to be from this coach. Some kids performing power cleans during a training session elsewhere. I’m assuming he wanted the kids doing the clean to train hip explosiveness. However, not a single clean I saw was executed with any hip extension. In this case, lotsa effort and no benefit.
There’s no question that the kids on my son’s former travel baseball team were exceptional ball players. But I question their general physical preparedness. Are they truly physically literate? Are a philosophy and practice of pure sports-specific training with no attention paid to general physical skills working like a time bomb on children being groomed for some poorly understood idea of eliteness? Are career-ending injuries awaiting them before they even have careers? Am I sounding a bit alarmist? Maybe. I know it’s possible and even likely that once in high school, these boys will find themselves participating in some kind of strength-and-conditioning programs because they participate on a sports team. And they might even embrace that. But…
… although there’s no question that my son has lucked onto an excellent basketball coach, it doesn’t mean that the coach also is or should be an excellent strength-and-conditioning coach. Variations of the scenario where the sports coach provides some form of strength-and-conditioning training are everywhere in youth sports, often right through high school and often with all of the nuance of mallet-wielding watch repair. I believe the current sports-specific bias boils down to expedience and ego, and there’s this tokenism that occurs as a function of the profound lack of awareness regarding the complexity of the field of strength and conditioning and the importance of GPP and physical literacy to sports performance and injury prevention.
You know, even if “elite-track” kids do finally discover the utility of strength and conditioning in high school and beyond, it’s quite likely that coaches will be forced to build on a tenuous if not imaginary foundation of functional movement skills. That means kid-gloves programming to keep these athletes from going to pieces and blunted positive impacts.
Taking the Athlete Out of Athletic Development
In Part 2, I cited Lloyd et al.’s (2015) two-article discussion on long-term athletic development. Their Composite Youth Development (CYD) model intentionally doesn’t contain the word “athlete” in its title to communicate a focus on participation for all. The idea being that athletic development implies talent or elite athletic development and by design and execution is exclusive. This is the gist of Richard Bailey and David Collins’ (2013) critique of twin-track and pyramidal models of talent development, which they respond to with their Three Worlds continuum, which acknowledges the nonlinearity of development in a framework for fair access to sports and physical activity.
In this regard, the Brand X Method™ aligns with the CYD and the Three Worlds continuum. We’re not interested in developing athletes in the commonly accepted sense. And that’s why there’s always been something about the “long-term athletic development” concept that has rubbed the Martins the wrong way.
Their goal has always been about instilling a joy of (good) movement that leads to physical literacy, physical fitness, and physical education for the broadest cross-section of youth possible. Now, if someone chooses to take what they’ve learned from the Brand X Method™ and ascend to the highest levels of a particular athletic endeavor, well, that’s just great. But we’re just as thrilled if another client is motivated to check out a new sport or return to an old one for the helluvit or someone else builds the confidence to pursue a goal entirely separate from physical activity.
In looking to do what’s best for clients, the Brand X Method™ treats athleticism as a component of general well-being. Elitism is nowhere to be found in our mission statement and, anyway, it’s an idea that’s incompatible with a GPP program with a mission of providing all comers with the tools to remain physically engaged throughout their lives.
There’s this notion out there these days that eliteness is accessible to anyone. That’s a joke. A dangerous one. The promise of elite athleticism based on misinterpreted models that often offer no actionable guidance breaks people down, burns them out, and excludes them. Current efforts to produce everyman elites at the youth level don’t develop sustainable athleticism in a manner that is in anyone’s best interest, including system stakeholders.
So, if the current strategy has failed, how can you produce elite athletes? Last time, I said something about five easy-peasy steps to guarantee elite athleticism. Well… that was bullshit. But a promise is a promise:
(1) Tear down and restructure the youth sports system so that teams, clubs, etc, provide developmentally appropriate sports-specific training that allows the free flow of kids between various skill and experience levels while normalizing the integration of GPP into training programs at all levels.
(2) Develop a formula for determining general-to-sport-specific training ratios for each youth sport that accounts for in-season and offseason and individual differences in age, anthropometry, maturity, and skill. This will require an ego-less and robust two-way bridge between researchers and practitioners.
(3) Educate youth coaches so that they are at least as qualified to train kids as collegiate and pro coaches are to train adults.
(4) Allow year-round team membership but end year-round competitive play by defining clear offseasons for all sports characterized by rest, recovery, and the appropriate adjustment to the general training: sport-specific training ratio based on that nifty formula you developed above.
(5) Drum up the political will to fund it.
Voilà. Here there be unicorns.
“Now I will believe that there are unicorns.” – Shakespeare, The Tempest
* Including beaning our best hitter, which was something this pitcher had done the last time we faced him in some meaningless tournament back home. One of my son’s assistant coaches told our pitcher to hit the kid the next time he was up cuz that’s how the game is played for reals. Our pitcher missed (which kinda summed up his outing). For what it’s worth, our top hitter came up in his next at-bat and went yard.
** One of the drills involved continuous vertical jumps, maybe a dozen or so, with a two-hand reach to the backboard. The coach had two kids go side by side simultaneously. My son is by far the shortest player on both of the 8th-grade teams. He went alongside one of the elite team guards who is at least half a head taller than him (incidentally, this is a kid who quit the Brand X program because he felt we were unjustly denying him heavier weight to lift and who likes to tell my kid how much he gets to lift now at another facility). I was sitting across the gym and my view was partially obstructed by the players clustered in the key waiting their turns. But I could see both boys’ hands as they jumped. I’d wager that not another soul saw what I saw: my shorter kid’s hands reaching higher than the elite kids’ for every rep. Every rep. I know how this sounds, but let’s not get all bitched up about it and consider for a moment the implications of a squid outjumping a taller “elite” kid who is more skilled in a sport where success relies heavily on jumping ability (a basic component of physical literacy).