Player Development Advice from an Unlikely Source

Every year, in recognition of the giving spirit of the holidays, the Endeavor staff does a small gift exchange. This year the guys got me two books that were awesome. The first of which was called The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping your Mind Limber with Abiding Wisdom. I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this, but it’s basically a philosophy book that uses scenes from the movie to make philosophical arguments.

As I’m writing that, I realize how lame it sounds, but the movie is so funny that the book was actually awesome. And once every few years I really like a good philosophy book. I found out there’s actually a whole series of those books, some of which seemed more interesting than others (i.e. The Inception book could be a good read).

Big Lebowski Meme

The other book, which sounds even nerdier than the last, was a book that used mathematics and historical math-related stories to challenge many common sense ideas. Yes, while you were out watching Fifty Shades of Grey, I was finishing a book about math and logic.

The book is called How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg, and was probably the best book I’ve read in the last two years.

It was in this text that I found incredibly wise words pertaining to long-term athletic development.

Check out the first excerpt below:

“One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! I’ve never heard a student say, “I like Hamlet, but I don’t really belong in AP English – that kid who sits in the front row knows all the players, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine!” Athletes don’t quiet their sport just because one of their teammates outshines them. And yet I see promising young mathematicians quit every year, even though they love mathematics, because someone in their range of vision was “ahead” of them.

We lose a lot of math majors this way. Thus, we lose a lot of future mathematicians; but that’s not the whole of the problem. I think we need more math majors who don’t become mathematicians. More math major doctors, more math major high school teachers, more math major CEOs, more math major senators. But we won’t get there until we dump the stereotype that math is only worthwhile for kid geniuses.”

When I first read this, the thing that jumped out to me was how much in sports, as in math, we overvalue early achievers. There is now very clear evidence that early success is NOT a strong predictor of future success and anyone that’s been around any sport for a long time has seen studs at younger levels fall into irrelevance at older levels.

He continues…

“The cult of the genius also tends to undervalue hard work. When I was starting out, I thought “hardworking” was a kind of veiled insult – something to say about a student when you can’t honestly say they’re smart. But the ability to work hard – to keep one’s whole attention and energy focused on a problem, systematically turning it over and over and pushing at everything that looks like a crack, despite the lack of outward signs of progress – is not a skill everybody has. Psychologists nowadays call it “grit”, and it’s impossible to do math without it. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of work, because mathematical inspiration, when it finally does come, can feel effortless and instant. I remember the first theorem I ever proved; I was in college, working on my senior thesis, and I was completely stuck. One night I was at an editorial meeting of the campus literary magazine, drinking red wine and participating fitfully in the discussion of a somewhat boring short story, when all at once something turned over in my mind and I understood how to get past the block. No details, but it didn’t matter; there was no doubt in my mind that the thing was done.

That moment of inspiration is the product of weeks of work, both conscious and unconscious, which somehow prepare the mind to make the necessary connection of ideas. Sitting around waiting for inspiration leads to failure, no matter how much of a whiz kid you are.

Does the second sentence sound familiar? It is almost verbatim what a former D1 player said to me a few years ago at our facility (Ok, he wasn’t as elegant, but the thought was the same), which I alluded to here: This may be why you’re not playing.

“It can be hard for me to make this case, because I was one of those prodigious kids myself. I knew I was going to be a mathematician when I was six years old. I took courses way above my grade level and won a neckful of medals in math contests. And I was pretty sure, when I went off to college, that the competitors I knew from Math Olympiad were the great mathematicians of my generation. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. That group of young starts produced many excellent mathematicians, like Terry Tao, the Fields Medal-winning harmonic analyst. But most of the mathematicians I work with now weren’t ace mathletes at thirteen; they developed their abilities and talents on a different time-scale. Should they have given up in middle school?

What you learn after a long time in math-and I think the lesson applies much more broadly-is that there’s always somebody ahead of you, whether they’re right there in class with you or not. People just starting out look to people with good theorems, people with some good theorems look to people with lots of good theorems, people with lots of good theorems look to people with Fields Medals, people with Fields Medals look to the “inner circle” medalists, and those people can always look toward the dead.”

The thought process here is very simple:

Overvaluing the idea of “natural talent” and early success can cripple an athlete’s work ethic.

As a coach, it’s incredibly important to reward behaviors and not outcomes. It’s equally vital to acknowledge successes, but help the kids place more value on working as hard as they can and focusing on getting a little better each day.

To help you understand why this is so important, let me share another story about one of the soccer teams we’ve been training recently (and really there’s at least one of these kids on every team).

One of the teams we train is a very talented boys team of HS kids. At the end of the training session, we typically wrap up with some form of shuttle run, most recently of which was 75-yard shuttles (cones at 0 and 25) where the kids are expected to give 100% effort on the entire run.

While the entire team is talented, and most are very athletic, there’s one kid that stands out as being faster and springier than the other kids. Because of this, he runs every shuttle just fast enough to beat the other 2-3 kids he’s running against, and he almost always wins. The exceptions are when he completely packs it in and just trots, in which case he comes in right behind the next fastest kid.

Here’s the problem: Being the fastest kid on your team can give you a false sense of security.

First off, he may be the fastest kid on his team NOW, but as puberty (and training) catches up with the other kids, he may not be the fastest for long. Maybe more importantly, is being the fastest on your team doesn’t mean you’re the fastest on every team.

And as athletes get older, the funnel gets narrower. This is probably best highlighted by the women’s hockey teams with USA Hockey. You can be the best player at the U-18 level, but the next year you need to be a top 20 player on the ~U-35 (or however old the oldest player) team. This means you not only need to beat out everyone in your age group, but basically every player on the U-18 teams for the preceding decade.

Not everyone has what it takes to compete at the most elite levels. There are a lot of things athletes can’t control, most notably their genetic ceiling.

The one thing that every athlete has 100% control over is his or her work ethic.

In the example above, the soccer player may be running fast enough to beat his teammates, but not fast enough to cause his body to adapt favorably. So while the kids he’s just barely beating are getting a little better every time they train, he’s doing just enough to stay where he is.

I always come back to the question “Where’s your finish line?”

Do you want to be a good U-16 player, or a great college player?

I think most athletes need raise their expectations for themselves.  In fact, I believe this so strongly that we plastered these words on our back wall so it’s the first thing you see when you walk into our facility.

Raise Your Expectations

Most athletes are capable of way more than they’ll ever realize. And while the athletes need to expect more of themselves, coaches (and parents) would benefit from placing a greater emphasis on LONG-term development and developing positive behaviors at young ages that will benefit the kids not only in their athletic endeavors, but throughout the rest of their lives.

This is not only true in sports, but as Ellenberg points out, also true in academia.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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“Kevin Neeld is one of the top 5-6 strength and conditioning coaches in the ice hockey world.”
– Mike Boyle, Head S&C Coach, US Women’s Olympic Team

“…if you want to be the best, Kevin is the one you have to train with”
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