“Get a hit or I’ll kill ya.” – authentic cue from my high school baseball coach c. 1981
That one time in travel ball when the coaches tweaked my kid’s pitching mechanics just before a “win-now” tournament game and then bitched at him from the dugout his entire outing because he wasn’t throwing strikes.
That one time in travel ball when my kid lamely chased an outside pitch and the third base coach cued him by mimicking the shitty swing.
Those many times in travel ball when the manager cued kids who made defensive errors by yanking them out of the game mid-inning.
The Ego as Scoreboard
What is coaching? Hell, that’s worth a book in itself and one that has been written already several times. It seems fair (if maybe a bit simplistic) to say, however, that, in sports, a coach facilitates athletic performance. That, however, begs a couple of questions: What is performance and how is it measured?
Is performance pure physical execution? Is it leadership on (and off) the field of play? Is it grace under pressure? All of the above? There are all kinds of metrics: statistics of increasingly dizzying specificity, championship rings and cups, rankings, wins and losses, contracts and endorsements, hot spouses and dates, felony convictions.
That’s all good for Olympic, collegiate, pro, and other elite levels, but what about youth sports? What is performance and how should it be measured for kids? I’ve seen the metrics in youth baseball for years. Ya gotta mash now. Ya gotta throw heat now. Gotta win now. We know which kids typically excel at that stuff. The relatively older kids, the relatively bigger, more physically developed kids.* The relative age effect is usually considered in terms of the impact on the younger or less mature kids. But it can take a toll on those kids who benefit from it early. For example, research indicates that RAE benefactors sometimes lose their advantage because they miss out on important skills training during their lionizing days of domination. Those athletes with the holes in their games get culled from the elite herd and, with any luck, remain active recreationally—some will drop out entirely.
But something more insidious can happen. When it comes to pitching, I’ve seen a lot of early bloomers with terrible mechanics. What happens to those guys? Well, some of them become pros. And then they blow out their arms. The case of Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg—he of the controversial Inverted W arm action—has fascinated me. After beginning his rookie season living up to what some have said is the most hype a prospect has ever generated in baseball history, he tore his UCL, which means Tommy John surgery. While chasing an idea about the Inverted W, I found a 2015 article on Strasburg suggesting that at least one pro team is such a fan of Tommy John surgery given its 90% success rate that it drafts young pitchers whose elbows are ready to blow. This can be read one of two ways: (1) The Nats adhere to some ideal of equal opportunity. (2) The Nats like to take calculated risks and don’t give many fucks about things like fundamental pitching mechanics when there’s a bargain to be had and wins to get.
At the very top of the sports food chain the win-now culture reigns supreme. No shit. But are you telling me there’s no trickle-down effect? Recent Hall of Fame inductee John Smoltz, the first Hall of Famer to have had Tommy John surgery, offered his two cents on the situation. He says, “We’re not developing pitchers the right way…. We’ve asked kids to do too much, too early, and at a high velocity at a young age, and you’re just not able to handle that over time.” Given the health of pitching arms by the time they arrive in the MLB, Smoltz doubts there’ll be another Tommy John surgery returnee to make the Hall of Fame.**
Strong words. Words that echo the position of organizations I’ve mentioned before: John O’Sullivan’s Changing the Game Project, the Positive Coaching Alliance, and Project Play. I suspect there are too many products of the win-now youth sports culture in the pipeline to see real change any time soon. But Smoltz’s position resonates:
Too much. Too early. High velocity at a young age.
Sounds a lot like there’s a systemic lack of understanding of the very bones of performance:
Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics => consistent execution of excellent mechanics => consistently excellent mechanics performed with intensity relative to exposure and current status
When it comes to training kids, mechanics must always occupy the most significant portion of a coach’s program and remain a consideration no matter what level the athlete is operating at. Privileging intensity (and volume) over consistently excellent mechanics simply because the current outcome resembles high performance sets an athlete up for future calamity. The athlete—the child—is in no position to consent to such a possibility, and, in a way, adults objectify their kids in service to the win-now youth sports culture, which ultimately is an expression of adult ego.
A true long-term development ethos cannot thrive in a win-now culture where performance is measured in terms of intensity. You can’t change something as complex as a pitching delivery without providing training time in a low-intensity environment for the adjustment to be mastered. To futz with technique just prior to competition—right before a must-win game—and expect a kid to execute without flaws is… well, you tell me.
Honestly, that the coaches bothered at all with my kid’s pitching mechanics was an anomaly for that team. Coulda been a great thing, but in that context, it was at once a flyspeck and epic fail.
The win-now youth sports culture often doesn’t allow space for coaches to intervene with respect to potential long-term red flags such as the Inverted W (if they can even see the movement). It’s quite simplistic: fucks are not given if the kid contributes to wins. The credo is “Scoreboard, baby.” Loud and clear. The rest of it is background noise.
Failure to Communicate
Patricia Maude, a physical literacy expert at Cambridge University, suggests that movement can be learned through language, but it “depends on the suitability of the language used.” This lucid idea is based on Michael M. McIntyre’s less lucid “Lucidity Principles,” some opaque shit residing in the fun-filled world of the philosophy of science or cognitive psychology or quantum macramé—couldn’t qite pt a finger on it. However, Maude’s point fits pretty well in our world and applies almost perfectly to cueing.
The coach’s ability to communicate with each athlete is critical. Obviously, a disconnect, a lack of clarity, undermines training efforts. Certainly this makes sense for specific issues. Say you’re trying to get a new client to get his back right for the deadlift setup and you say, “Flatten your back,” and instead of extending the spine into a neutral position, he flexes into a catback. There are a few reasons why that might happen, but it mostly doesn’t matter why. What matters is that the coach finds the right words to elicit the correct response. This tends to be the realm that The Brand X Method™ occupies—the quotidian minutiae of movement, heh—but lately I’ve been pondering this in the broader more basic context of physical literacy.
According to Whitehead (2010) at the heart of physical literacy is the urge to create ourselves by interacting with our surroundings and the meaning we assign to those surroundings by virtue of how we perceive them and how prior personal experience dictates that perception. This means that each individual person has a unique perspective and hence a unique physical literacy. Although we possess other sensory capacities and ways to respond, our physical literacy depends in large part on proprioception and gross and fine movement. Physical literacy is vital to how we understand the world and, in turn, how we understand ourselves. This has implications for self-concept, self-esteem, social identity, and interpersonal relations.
On one level, a coach might be considered a dynamic environmental variable that influences an athlete’s interactions with the world. In this way, a coach can either enable or hinder the development of physical literacy. Here we see the significance of clarity in cueing and correction. By clarity I mean not only understandable but actionable. It’s gotta be something the kid can grasp and work with. It’s gotta be useful to the kid. It’s gotta facilitate performance. Although Maude’s statements on lucidity refer specifically to verbal communication, it seems entirely reasonable that nonverbal—visual and tactile—cues also must be lucid and actionable.
In the case of my son’s poor swing, the coach chose to show him what he did wrong rather than how to correct it. To say nothing of the coach’s annoyed expression and dismissive body language. My kid had to get back into the batter’s box, the site of one of the most difficult skills in all of sports, armed only with the knowledge that he’d disappointed the coach, no tools for correcting the mistake, all eyes on him, flopping a foregone conclusion.
As for getting pulled from the game after making an error, there’s no lack of clarity there: you fucked up, the coach is pissed, and he wanted to make an example of you in front of your teammates, your parents, and the other parents (some of whom undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t their kid who embarrassed them and who maybe even felt some of that German word that sounds a bit like a brand of ice cream or some heinous liqueur ).
Returning to the pitching mechanics incident above, the coaches might’ve given my kid an extremely lucid, concise, and valuable cue. Doesn’t matter. They delivered it in the context of the win-now grind, which sends the ultimate mixed message: let’s change your mechanics and go execute flawlessly under competitive conditions for the win.
Whitehead sees physical literacy as characterized by, among other things, “motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to maintain physical activity throughout the lifecourse [sic].” I don’t see the coaches in these examples fostering a lot of motivation or confidence. Spare me your morally outraged bullshit about how sports is an opportunity for kids to experience the kind of adversity they’ll confront in adulthood, about the importance of toughening them up so they can make it in this world, about how participation trophies are the devil’s work, about how kids need competition to thrive. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. The current youth sports system ostensibly creates a class of “elite” athletes in an exclusionary pyramidal system, culling out not just potentially superior athletes who need something other than a hard knocks and blind luck development trajectory but also average participants who lose out on a lifetime of satisfying physical activity. It’s a kind of social Darwinist fail-and-flail tenet haunted by a slew of concepts you’d expect to find in a sociology lexicon.
Finding Success in Failure
In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough (2012) sees the value in failure for child development. He uses chess as an example of a game marked by a high degree of failure. Well, baseball is known as a “game of failure” too. However, he isn’t advocating a sink-or-swim tough-love view of failure. Tough speaks about teaching kids to manage failure. Failure is inevitable and quite possibly indispensable for gaining new skills and knowledge. But you can’t swathe failure in humiliation and letdown and expect kids to embrace it as integral to their growth. To facilitate performance, youth coaches have to encourage kids to explore their margins and provide a safe place for them to do so. Coaches can create a “growth environment” in which kids can nurture what Carol Dweck (2008) refers to as a growth mindset, which, among other things, allows us to cope with failure in a positive way.
You want to fuck with my kids pitching mechanics, fine, just don’t get on his case if he’s not spot on immediately after adjusting his technique. The only thing you should be concerned with is if he’s executing the new delivery correctly. You want to win in that moment? If that youth baseball game is so goddamned important that you require high-intensity performance, then let my boy throw the way he knows how to throw because when he is spot on, he’s unfuckinghittable. All of this should be fucking obvious.
You don’t like the way my kid handles the outside pitch? Don’t mock him when he’s at the plate in the middle of a game. Offer him something concise and immediately useful that gives him a chance to make a correction and make contact. Don’t know how to do that? Get educated. Learn the mechanics and the cues and how to communicate them. Be a coach and coach the kid; teach him something. You have an obligation.
Pretending you’re about athletic development when all you’re really interested in is posting a photo on Facebook boasting about how the team won a weekend tournament is not only disingenuous, it’s fundamentally damaging to the kids you’re lying to.
Development of physical literacy is a major pillar of The Brand X Method™. In support of that, we focus on creating a gym culture that celebrates the process of learning and improving—that’s the performance we’re after, and we achieve that by facilitating confidence in, motivation for, and understanding of movement in service to everything else a kid wants to do. It is an incremental, stepwise process that encourages kids to want to take an active role in the process. Such a process has no place in the current professionalized, instant-gratification, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of win-now youth sports.
When it comes to teaching and correcting movement, we’re always looking for the most efficient cues to communicate a simple and immediately actionable message. We understand that even great cues won’t work for everyone, so we’re constantly vetting new and different cues for an ever-evolving bag of tricks. A kid’s success for the day often hinges on our opening a clear channel to elicit even the smallest response that provides instant positive feedback.
Given the highly individualized nature of people’s interactions with the world, we also understand that learning something entirely new or refining even well-honed technique requires that intensity be nonexistent in the first case and curtailed in varying degrees depending on experience in the second case. We wouldn’t load a kid up and leave him alone on his first day in class or change one of our varsity teens’ lifting techniques the morning of a USAPL meet.
The process of learning and improving ought to be characterized by experimentation and adventure, interacting with your surroundings in sometimes audacious ways. The Brand X Method culture is infused with the spirit of play that invites exploration of the world and your own limits—testing, making mistakes, being bold about it, learning from it. We pursue the clearest, most concise means of communicating with athletes on an individual basis, seeking a connection that encourages them to take active part in their progress. In this culture, setbacks lead to experience and knowledge while teaching perseverance and resilience that transcend the gym—now we’re talking about life skills of the sort that The Brand X Method has been instilling in kids for more than a decade, something you can learn about in the TBXM Online Basic Kids Certificate Course.
Another way to look at the idea of “growth environment” suggested above is in terms of how the coach can (1) support an athletes’ autonomous functioning and (2) create a motivational climate. Both are in part determined by a coach’s “intervention tone” (Erickson and Côte, 2016). Intervention tone. Kinda solemn sounding, but its importance can’t be overstated. To put it simply, intervention tone characterizes a coach’s relationship with an athlete as depending not just on what he says but how he says it.
We have to make sure kids understand clearly what we want them to do, and we have to present it in a context that inspires learning and chance taking. Are you truly promoting a pro-process “mastery-oriented climate,” or is it really a pro-outcome “task-oriented climate”? Because the last time I checked, mastering anything takes a lotta lotta time, patience, and diligence, and sometimes the outcomes you’re looking for are well down the road. The Brand X Method has seen where that road can take kids, but not where it ends—that’s something we may not see in our lifetime, which is an astounding thing to ponder.
Improvement, excellence, performance, any of that relies on a kid’s willingness to confront the possibility of failure, but she simply won’t if coaches, parents, and the system are telling her that it’s all about fun at the same time that they’re expecting victory…. Just have a good time (but really, dear, don’t fuck up).
* The upshot of this is collectively known as the relative age effect (this term is sometimes pluralized to highlight the phenomenon’s multiple expressions). There’s a ton of research out there on the relative age effect; it’s deeply intertwined with the athletic development literature, adding significantly to the complexity of that field. I found it fascinating to see the relative age effect in action with my son. I also found it deeply painful to see him struggle against a furtive bugbear that cast over him a glamour of bogus, confidence-crushing incompetence. When my son left the travel team, a few people (including the academy’s manager) figured my son quit. Truth is, after watching a slow frost creep in to smother his passion for the game, I pulled the plug. My son would’ve kept going and going and going like some kind of automaton. He couldn’t see what I could see: (1) He wasn’t experiencing much joy, certainly not the kind required to excel. (2) He wasn’t developing the specific skills he needed to express his exceptional athleticism. (3) He was headed toward catastrophic burnout. No one else in a significant position seemed to see it either.
** The rule of thumb is that your new elbow will last maybe eight years and then you’ll need another. Given the specialization of professional pitching (ie, starters, long and short relievers, setup guys, and closers) among other factors, chances are you simply won’t put up the kind of numbers required to merit inclusion. Or the HoF will adjust down the criteria defining a historically great pitcher. At any rate, the Nats may draft your rebuilt rookie elbow, but they’ll likely ditch you before the time bomb goes off. Will another team pick up damaged goods? I don’t know. Whaddya do when your career is over before age 30?
Dweck C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. NY: Ballantine, 2008.
Erickson K and Côte J. A season-long examination of the intervention tone of coach-athlete interactions and athlete development in youth sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 22: 264-272, January 2016.
Tough P. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. NY: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Whitehead, M (ed). Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse. NY: Routledge, 2010.