Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More, More, More Does Not Mean Better

Practices for recently retired John Gagliardi (1, 2), the winningest college football coach ever, were no longer than ninety minutes a day. No tackling and his players wore shorts or sweats. In games, his quarterbacks called their own plays.

John T. Reed in the 1992 season did not hold any batting practice for his youth baseball team. Batting average for all kids combined was .320. Slugging average was .463 and on-base percentage .590. Reed also seldom held pitching or grounder fielding practice. His teams, he says, were at or near the top of those categories.

Accomplishment requires innate talent plus practice. How much practice is required to bring out the talent to achieve expert status?

A much ballyhooed number these days is the 10,000 hours reported by psychologist Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. Ericsson’s original studies were of musicians. The first thing, however, a musician will tell you is that it is not a question of how many hours you practice, but how you practice in the one hour you have available. Deliberate, focused practice with goals to achieve every session is what is required. Just putting in the hours won’t cut it.

Besides, the 10,000-hour rule is an average. In chess the average is 11,000, and the amount of time required to become a master player (1, 2) ranges from 3000 to 23,000 hours. Some, though, have never achieved that hallowed standing after more than 25,000 hours of practice.

Years, meaning maturity with age, is in certain respects a better measure. Kids who begin playing a musical instrument in 4th grade and those who start in 8th are often even in skill by 9th. Reed observed that his teams improved more with age than anything else. Basketball great Michael Jordan, after all, did not make varsity until his junior year in high school and Cy Young baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser did not make a name for himself in college until his third year—after he grew, gained weight, and, as a result, was able to increase the speed of his fastball.

Quantity, in other words, to quote an old and perhaps trite proverb, does not make quality.

So why so many hours every week in youth sports and so many games? The answer we hear on the fields is that it is necessary to get your child ready to be selected by those Division I coaches, which allegedly means full-ride scholarships.

Cancel the obsession with scholarships and what is left?

Fewer hours spent on a single sport, one would hope, which could and should mean fewer overuse injuries and more diversity of athletic experience. That would then mean rest for overused body parts from the single sport and development of other body parts from other sports.*

It could and should mean more time to spend on homework and other after school activities. We are not fans of school-night practices, especially those that go until 9:00 or 10:00pm and emphatically not of those that start at 5:00am, and earlier, in such sports as hockey.**

There is of course a curve to learning. Some quantity is required to acquire basic skill and more is required to make finely tuned professional adjustments. But too much quantity, as in a four to six hour practice, sometimes after a long week at school, or in the wee hours of the morning, stops learning and can even degrade it.

And team practices that often do not acknowledge or cater to individual differences accomplish little. Not every pitcher needs to throw hundreds of pitches every week and not every batter needs to hit hundreds of balls off a tee. Some chess players, remember, only need 3000 hours to achieve master status. Requiring such a “one-size-fits-all” regimen produces fatigue, overuse injuries, and burnout.

What about the number of games played today in youth sports? Research (1, 2, 3) clearly shows that greater learning takes place in practices, for the simple reason that that is the time in which all kids get their hands (or feet) repeatedly on the ball and their hockey sticks on the pucks. Comparable times in a game may only be a few seconds, if at all.

Games are for the adults because that is what the adults enjoy—and for the kids who get to play; they are not much fun for the bench warmers.

Are so many games good for the kids?

Baseball hall of famer Cal Ripken, Jr., agrees with the European soccer clubs whose ratio of practices to games is about three to one. Fewer games are better for development.

With so many games—80-120 a year not uncommon in club or travel sports—what kids learn to do is to pace themselves in order to endure the marathon. That’s not exactly what coaches have in mind.

But screaming at the kids to give 110% in every game—say, a fourth or fifth game of the day—grossly misunderstands childhood. The only thing “toughened up” in such a marathon is adult ego.

*Georgia Soccer recommends that its elite players take “4-8 weeks of off-season rest each year, for regeneration and recharging.”

**High school and college teams practice in the afternoons, completing everything by 5:00 or 6:00pm. This leaves the evening for rest and homework or, for college students, night classes. We know why youth sports teams practice in the evening: facilities are not available and amateur coaches cannot make it to an afternoon practice. Is this good for the kids or good for the adults?

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