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Placing an Importance on Player Development – The Balancing Act of Developing Skills the Right Way

Naddelman-ArticleRecently, Rob NaddelmanCo-Founder and President of Factory Athletics, spoke to a group of executives in California during a meeting with the Young Presidents Organization about the company’s philosophy on Player Development. The discussion focused on why it’s critical for young athletes and families to do a better job in the balancing act between the demands of travel teams and the need to develop skills the right way. Matt Lund caught up with Rob to learn more about seeking that family balance within competitive travel sports.

Matt Lund: The thought out there is that parents are spending too much time and money running from showcase to travel games and not enough time spent developing their child as a person or an athlete – how did we get to this point where this is a constant theme?

Rob Naddelman: I think the first part to understand is who’s driving decisions in the family? Does the athlete have the passion that is necessary to want to pursue these sports at the highest level, or is the parent driving the conversation? Simply, where is the motivation coming from? During my talk, what I used to help support the notion that motivation needs to come from within, was a book that is taught in many business schools, called Drive by Daniel Pink. Much of the book is written in the context of employees and what motivates them to perform in a corporate environment. However, what the research showed was, you can talk about financial incentives, titles, corporate philosophy, all these things have some impact, but, the bottom line is that true motivation is intrinsic. It must come from within the individual to have a lasting effect.

The other book I looked at closely in the context of this conversation was Outliers, written by Malcolm Gladwell. In that book he talks about something called the 10,000-hour rule, which he points to as the necessary benchmark to master a skill. Gladwell gives specific examples of people who pursue music, arts, etc.  What he found is that practice, and sometimes it’s the incorrect practice, more specifically the trial and error that helps you master a skill. And in a sport, you won’t ever get to 10,000 hours by only practicing when your team has practice. So, what I discussed was how frequently is a player practicing when no one is watching? Are they going out and actively working on things to help them improve?

Back to your original question of how we got here, I think two things have changed significantly: First, I think the parent is driving the schedule in most households because kids are more over-scheduled than they were, say a generation ago. Many parents believe, “more is more” and if we don’t do all the showcases and travel events possible, my kid will be missing out. And the second part is that there is a belief in a lot of athletes that they practice when they have team practice and when they don’t, they’re working on something else. Those are the two biggest things that contribute to the imbalance that exists in today’s athletes in many circumstances.

ML: I thought this paragraph was interesting in the presentation, “Everything we read suggests that over-specialization, repetition without a plan, and negative re-enforcement hurts our ability to grow and learn.” Can you speak more on that?

RN: Mindset by Carol Dweck was another book I referenced during the talk. Dweck’s research shows that people operate from either a growth or fixed mindset. Most people however operate within the fixed mindset, which fosters a belief that you are born with a certain amount of ability and when you can’t do something, it’s because you don’t have the skills required. Those who have a growth mindset, think if they work at something long enough, they can master it, even if it takes longer. Studies have been conducted on children and how they approach difficult math or logic problems. Those with a fixed mindset were more likely to cheat because they didn’t want to admit they couldn’t do it or quit since the problems were hard, versus the ones with a growth mindset who continue to stick with it.

I believe we need to put our children in an environment where they’re more likely to maintain a growth mindset. This requires a certain type of coach to foster a strong work ethic and self-esteem. It requires positive communication to cultivate the player’s strength and give them the trust and freedom to fail. When you over-specialize in something, typically it’s the same coach or coaches working with the player repeatedly. If you don’t have a growth minded coach, it is possible to set the player back further. For me, it requires an honest assessment of the players’ ability to know specifically what they’re not doing well, focused areas for improvement, and then working with someone who is an expert (communicator and tactical) to get better.

Let’s say your child struggles in math… would you put that child in a situation where they were tested time and time again to improve their math skills or would you seek out a tutor who could communicate specifically with the child around the areas they struggle and help them improve? It’s the same in athletics; how are you approaching your development as an athlete? Are you only relying on the manager of the team who has to spend most of their time focused on the overall success of the team, or do you have an expert “tutor” to support your skill development?

ML: To that point, what is Factory Athletics’ philosophy in being able to bridge that gap, helping to provide better balance for families and their children?

RN: We believe it all starts with a benchmark and an assessment that is unbiased and national of the player’s skills, and I feel like most families don’t have that context. Every parent is familiar with the visits to the pediatrician where your child’s height and weight is measured against the national average and instantly, it gives the parent a very clear picture of whether their child is ahead or below that standard. That type of benchmarking is lacking a lot of times in sports. Especially for a family who may not understand where their high school team or local area fits against a larger audience.

At Factory Athletics, what we do is start off with an assessment, what we call our evaluation and it grades the athlete against athletic measurements; foot speed, arm strength, grip strength, things you can time or measure, in addition to a similar scale for sports-specific functions like hitting, fielding or pitching grades. A parent can quickly understand if their child is ahead or below the national average and exactly what to work on.

From there, we put players into certain tracks within our company that are player development-centric. Our corporate philosophy is focused on, “how do we make the player better?” A lot of the instruction is designed specifically to look at the player evaluation, identify the weaknesses and attack them to make the player better. We look primarily to improve the deficient skills as opposed to concentrating on how many at-bats you get or how many coaches are there to watch you, especially if you are doing things incorrectly. Do you really want a coach to see you drop your hands 50 straight at-bats, or is it smarter to fix that problem before showcasing?

ML: Youth sports is a money-making machine: $15 billion industry, 45 million kids play high school sports… 20% of families spend upwards of $12,000 per year per child, mostly on travel teams and showcases – but there’s a wide gap between that and the amount of kids who move to the next level – between 3% and 12% play collegiately and fewer than 10% of those athletes go pro… What should a family do to maximize their opportunities?

RN: It starts off with an honest conversation at home with the child on what they want. I have three girls, one who is a high school softball player, and she has been exposed to the Softball Factory where we have the highest level of instruction. If she were interested in playing softball at the college level, she could have every resource available to her. But after one player development event with our Company, we had an honest conversation and she decided she just wants to play softball in high school. Frankly, she has other interests. Now as a parent, that’s great information and I thought it was a very helpful conversation. The truth is, this decision and process is not about me. I played baseball in college but I’m not expecting my children to have the same experience I had. So, when she told me her goals, she decided she wanted to work hard to be the best high school player she can be, but not pursue softball beyond that. This takes a whole level of pressure off the situation and the need to go from travel tournament to travel tournament every weekend, when that isn’t what she really wants.

All families should ask, what does the child REALLY want and are they motivated to pursue this sport at the highest level? There are many athletes who are intrinsically motivated, but at the same time, I think you need to be realistic with the allocation of time and money. There’s research that suggests that overspecialization of one sport causes more often than that not, the player to quit or get injured. How do you balance that? Let’s say baseball is the passion, what else can you do to give the muscles required in baseball a rest? For anyone that is passionate about exercise, if you do the same workout every day of your life, you’re going to plateau in terms of how you can improve your fitness. You need to cross train, and find time to give yourself rest. Same goes for our young athletes; can they play basketball, can they do weight training, run track, what can they do to give their baseball muscles a rest but still make athletic and emotional progress?

It comes down to putting resources into three buckets (development, showcase, and travel)… and I think the Player Development bucket is the smallest of the three for most families, when it should be the biggest. We should be showcasing when we’re mentally and physically ready, not hoping that a coach sees us on our best day. The showcase and travel buckets needs to be a bit smaller and probably more strategic, for maximum benefit to the athlete.

ML: As a company, we’ve identified four areas to maximize potential. What are those four implications and what are the solutions to address them?

RN: First, and most important, working to your fullest capability in the classroom is going to give you more opportunities at the college level to have choices. We focus on being a student first and an athlete second.

The second part is focused on competition, and how you approach it. If you play with and against all the same players repeatedly, it goes back to that growth mindset, how much are you growing when your surroundings are always the same? You should switch things up, get out of your comfort zone to have a different experience to help you grow. With our Player Development events, kids do not know each other as they come from all across the country. They play together and it’s an opportunity for them to grow in life in an uncomfortable social environment at first, but by the end, they’re assimilated with each other. And because of that, there’s no expectation, so there’s freedom mentally from how they might have been labeled in their hometown.

The third piece of this is college recruiting. You need to be the most active promoter of yourself. While baseball and softball have made strides in the last 15 years in terms of opportunity, they are still not at the level of college football or basketball in terms of scholarships. Recruiting and travel budgets aren’t nearly as high. Social media has helped combat these challenges, and most importantly you need to have a video and evaluation of your skills to help support your candidacy with the college. We provide those tools for a player, to help them promote themselves.

The final piece is the player development bucket. All players have something to work on. If you’re a three-tool athlete, you still have two tools you need to consistently improve. There’s a great article about former Los Angeles Lakers great, Kobe Bryant that I researched in preparation for this talk. It mentioned how in his prime, on game days alone, he would spend seven hours preparing. Whether it was stretching, strength work, practicing certain shots, his mental preparation… there was a whole routine. If you’re at the peak of your sport and spending that much time on your craft, it shows that the player development piece needs to be the most important for young players.

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The feedback presented after the event from the audience, mostly parents, was very positive. The topic and overall presentation scored a 9.56 out of 10, while the knowledge of subject scored a 9.89, and involvement of the audience scored a 9.44.

Sample comments from the audience included:

He really talked about some interesting things like the 10 hour rule, expanding the amount of sports you play and resting.”

Very thorough and direct guidance for parents and families as they approach travel sports.”

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