Build Athletic Passion Before Emphasizing Performance

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Build Athletic Passion Before Emphasizing Performance

Post by » Thu Nov 15, 2007 3:14 am

Build Athletic Passion Before Emphasizing Performance
Kids Fitness Column
By Brian McCormick, CSCS, PES
Performance Director,

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness Magazine (
Copyrighted and published on with permission by Author

At the gym this week, I watched as a seventh grader worked with a personal shooting coach for an hour. After his lesson, his mother spoke to another coach at the gym and had the coach watch her son shoot and offer a couple pointers. Then, the child shot by himself for another hour as his mother watched and critiqued every shot based on the advice she received from the second coach. After the child had been shooting for two-and-a-half hours, he started to whine. He wanted to go home. His mother told him he had to make 20 free throws in a row first. Eventually, a team had practice and kicked them off the court.

When I was young, I imagine there were days when I spent two hours shooting by myself. I know I set goals like making 20 shots in a row before going inside for dinner. However, I made the decisions. I initiated the practice, I set my own goals, I decided when I wanted to finish. My individual shooting practice was child-initiated and based on my own motivations. I practiced because I enjoyed shooting.

The mother initiated the shooting practice for the kid at the gym, setting goals, hiring trainers and talking to coaches. The kid did not want to continue practicing. He was not enjoying the activity. His body slumped after every missed shot that prolonged his practice, he whined and he threw the ball a couple times. Maybe the mother wanted to teach her son a lesson about practice habits, work ethic or discipline. However, I saw a kid starting to hate basketball.

In the United States, we face an obesity epidemic. Kids are fat. However, we also have turned childhood sports into a scholarship chase. I believe the obesity issues stem from the same misguided philosophy which turned youth sports into the pursuit of the ephemeral dream, rather than a time for fun, activity, learning and exploration.

Parents rush their kids into competitive athletics because they do not want their son or daughter to fall behind other kids. I once received a phone call from the mother of a six-year-old who wanted individual basketball training for her son before she put him into a league because she wanted him to be prepared and successful.

These efforts are misguided. K. Anders Ericsson, author of The Road to Excellence, believes “when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.”

Ericsson believes a person needs hours of deliberate practice to become an expert performer. In a sense, the mother in the gym provided an environment for the child to engage in deliberate practice. This is the approach parents take. They know their child needs to practice and work hard to be successful, so they start the child down this path at earlier and earlier ages, like the mother of the six-year-old who called me. However, the parents miss the first requirement: kids must love what they are doing. Pushing a child into an activity too hard and too soon often has the opposite effect, turning the child against the activity. In these instances, many rebel against their parents or coaches and stop playing sports altogether.

When a child stops playing sports or engaging in physical activities at an early age, he is less likely to resume these activities as he ages. Kids love to learn and explore. They do not compare themselves to others. They enjoy playing and learning. However, as we age, we become more self-conscious and more aware of people around us. A teenager is unlikely to try a new sport for the first time because he does not want to fail. People associate a failure in an activity with a character flaw and worry others might like them less just because they cannot shoot a basketball or catch a football. While it is easy to dismiss these feelings when reading a magazine, how many adults actively pursue activities in which they are not very good or have never tried? Now, imagine doing so during adolescence. No wonder P.E. is the worst class of the day for many kids.

Once upon a time, kids played hopscotch at recess and jumped off swings at the highest peak. They jumped over (or into) puddles and skipped just for fun. Jumping rope was a game kids played to song.

Now, as recess disappears and the pursuit of a scholarship or a professional sports career grips parents as soon as their young prodigy takes his first steps, personal trainers painstakingly count the number of foot touches in a plyometric workout to prevent overtraining and burnout. Depth jumps are prohibited for all but the most advanced kids, and few athletes at any level perform depth jumps from heights approximating those of kids jumping off a swing at its highest point. The play activities of past generations are now carefully regimented training activities used to prepare young athletes for sporting success.

In Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, Waitzkin, a world champion in chess and Judo, writes: “the most important factor in these first few months of study was that Bruce [his first chess coach] nurtured my love for chess, and he never let technical material smother my innate feelings for the game.” Eventually, Waitzkin moved to more intense levels of training and instruction. However, this occurred after he developed a passion for chess and a desire to pursue the sport.

In the gym this week, the mother failed to nurture her son’s love for basketball. While her efforts stemmed from a good place, rather than help her son improve, she hindered his development. And, as we change physical activity from fun games to training activities, we lose kids who are uninterested in or psychologically unprepared for the competitive nature of youth athletics.

The media points to the dedication of Tiger Woods at an early age as an illustration of developing a successful athlete. However, how many young prodigies never make it? These are the stories left untold. However, parents and coaches latch onto the Tiger Woods’ story and believe they must raise their child in the same way. Nobody learns from the lessons of Todd Marinovich or Jennifer Capriati or the dozens of others who quit sports altogether before they reached any level of noteworthiness. Rather than looking at Tiger Woods as the rule, what if he is the exception? What if he developed in spite of the pushing, not because of it? What if Woods, like Waitkin, developed the passion for the game first and then engaged in the deliberate practice which elevated him into the greatest golfer in the world? The media typically only captures part of the story; maybe the real story is the fun games his father played with him when he was young which generated the intense interest in golf.

Youth sports are not the pre-minor leagues. Kids are not miniature professionals. Whether the goal is to develop your child into an All-American or just to keep your child active, the method is the same: youth sports should be fun, child-centered, exploratory and learning-oriented, not a competitive cauldron or pre-professional training.

Brian McCormick is a certified strength coach, published author and former professional basketball coach. He lives in San Diego where he trains basketball players and coaches high school volleyball and basketball.

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