Youth sports in America is a 15 billion dollar industry. A lot of that money is going towards special coaching and training and participation in elite travel teams. Parents spend an enormous amount of money and time on their kids’ involvement in sports, hoping the investment will pay off in accolades, college scholarships, and even the chance to play professionally. But my guests today argue that all that special coaching you’re spending money on probably isn’t doing much to turn your kid into an superstar.
Their names are Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson, and they’ve co-written a new book called The Playmaker’s Advantage. Leonard is one of the pioneers in the field of sports psychology and was a professor of it at Boston University for 37 years. Over the decades, he’s consulted for professional and collegiate sports programs as well as Olympic teams. Daniel Peterson is a science writer who has spent his career looking at the intersection of neuroscience and athletic performance, and is co-founder and director of 80 Percent Mental Consulting.
Today on the show, Len and and Daniel discuss whether you can spot athletic talent in a child and why a kid who looks talented at age 10 can end up being a dud athlete at 20. They explain why you shouldn’t regiment your child’s athletic training or specialize kids too early in sports. Along the way, they provide best practices for parents and coaches who work with children in sports. We then discuss how sports can boost children’s cognitive abilities and why an athlete’s mental game can be just as important as their speed and strength. We end our conversation talking about what kind of practice is nearly useless, and what kind is the most helpful.
- The state of sports psychology back in the ’60s and ’70s
- How much athletic talent comes from one’s inherited genes?
- Can playmakers be spotted at really young ages? Do early sports camps help?
- Does specialization help or hurt young athletes?
- The difference between regimented practices and free play
- Tips for youth sports coaches
- The working memory of kids, and how it’s different from adults
- How to gently critique your kids and help them improve their skills
- The “Parking Lot” rule
- How discipline and personal development in sports carries over into other areas
- Can youth performance indicate if someone will someday “make it” to the big leagues?
- The importance of practice, and why more practice isn’t necessarily better
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My interview with David Epstein about the sports gene
- The Power of Team Captains
- Why Every Young Man Should Play a Team Sport
- 6 Tips for Successfully Coaching a Youth Sports Team
- 10 Best Multi-Sport Athletes of All-Time
- Why Football Matters
- When Can Kids Start Lifting Weights?
- How to Instill a Love of Fitness in Your Kids
- My interview with Anders Ericsson on reaching your peak
- The Secret of Great Men: Deliberate Practice
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Connect With Len and Daniel
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Youth sports in America is a 15-billion-dollar industry. A lot of that money is going towards special coaching and training as well as participation in elite travel teams. Parents spend an enormous amount of time and money on their kids’ involvement in sports hoping the investment will pay off in accolades, college scholarships, and even the chance to play professionally.
My guests today argue that all that special coaching you’re spending money on probably isn’t doing much to turn your kid into a superstar. Their names are Len Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peters. Len is one of the pioneers in the field of sports psychology and was a professor of it at Boston University for 37 years. Over the decades he’s consulted for professional and collegiate sports programs as well as Olympic teams.
Daniel Peterson is a science writer who spent his career looking at the intersection of neuroscience and athletic performance and is the co-founder and director of 80 Percent Mental Coaching.
Today on the show, Len and Dan will discuss whether you can spot athletic talent in your child and why a kid who looks talented at age ten can end up being a dud athlete at 20. They explain why you shouldn’t regiment your child’s athletic training or specialize your kids too early in sports. Along the way, they provide best practices for parents and coaches who work with children in sports. We then discuss how sports can boost children’s cognitive abilities and why an athlete’s mental game can be just as important as their speed and strength.
We end our conversation talking about what kind of practice is nearly useless and what kind is the most helpful. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/Playmaker.
Len Zaichkowsky, Daniel Peterson, welcome to the show.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you, Brett. Great to be here.
Len Zaichkowsky: Yeah, thank you for inviting us to be part of your great worldwide podcast.
Brett McKay: Thanks for coming on. You two have a new book out called The Playmaker’s Advantage: How to Raise Your Mental Game to the Next Level. It’s about basically the latest research in sports psychology, neuroscience, and how those things can separate elite athletes from the rest. But before we get into that, let’s start off with some definitions. How do you all define a playmaker? Are playmakers seen on the little league level and all the way up through the pros?
Daniel Peterson: I’ll start with this. When we put this book out, we wanted to start a conversation with parents and coaches about the cognitive aspects of the game. We knew we couldn’t really name it The Cognitive Advantage or The Neuropsychological Benefits of Sports. We knew we had to connect it to something, a term that people had heard of. The term that popped in our heads was “playmaker,” because there seems to be somewhat of a universal understanding across sports, especially team sports, that a playmaker is someone who obviously makes plays, someone who sees the field, the court, the ice, a little bit better, makes quicker decisions, better decisions, and, yes, that we do see it at all different age levels, that it’s that one player who just seems to get it a lot quicker, not necessarily from physical maturity or even a skill component, but just someone who orchestrates things out there. It’s maybe the center midfielder on a soccer team. Maybe it’s the quarterback or someone else on a football team, the point guard, et cetera, but not necessarily by position. I think all players can have some of these playmaking skills.
We actually, for all the interviews we did with coaches and academics for the book, we started each interview with the question to them of, “What is your definition of a playmaker?” We got some very interesting responses. A few of those, I’ll just share a couple of them. For example, Sidney Crosby, who was, we were very lucky to talk to, and we’ll tell the story about Mike Sullivan in a little bit. But his response was, “A playmaker is somebody who is able to create things, whether that’s for themselves or for somebody else around them. It may just be a subtle play that ends up turning into a better play later on.”
We talked to Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics. He said, “In basketball I always think of it in terms of making their teammates better just by their presence on the court and the ability to create advantage for everyone else out there.” Then we also saw a quote from the current manager of Manchester City soccer team in the English premier league, Pep Guardiola, who’s coached Barcelona and Bayern Munich, one of the best coaches in the world. He actually made a comment about one of his young stars, 25-year-old Belgian Kevin De Bruyne, and he was commenting on the skills of Kevin. His quote was, “He makes the right decision in the right moment every single time.” We thought that was a great way to define the playmaker.
Then what the book is about is diving into the science and all the other aspects of trying to figure out what that is that those playmakers have.
Brett McKay: What I think is interesting is I think oftentimes when people think about sport talent, they think of skill, physiology. We had Epstein on the podcast, type of The Sports Gene. But you guys, your focus is on the cognitive aspect, right? It’s all about seeing plays develop.
Len, I think this is interesting. You started studying this stuff, what, back in the late sixties, seventies?
Daniel Peterson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What was the field like at that time of sports psychology? Were they even looking at that?
Len Zaichkowsky: No, it was barren. There was nothing happening. I always had that fascination, wondering who these playmakers were, these great players, and why did I not become one. I’m thinking it had to be the coaching. I always was intrigued with that. Then finally I had an Olympic champion at Boston University, David Hemery, won the 400-meter hurdles in Mexico City and then followed up in ’72 with a silver, did his doctoral dissertation on these great athletes and what made them champions. Of course, we talked about champions, but we decided to call it playmakers rather than champions, but that was the beginning. That’s mid-1980s, where it was kind of, I’d have to say one of the first publications on examining who these people were that became the playmakers or the champions.
I’m proud of the fact that I started a lot of this inquiry, but it’s really mushroomed. You mentioned that David Epstein’s great book on the sports gene, where he debunked the whole idea that so much of performance is around what you inherited from your parents.
Yeah, it was a barren field, and it’s slowly picking up. We’re hoping with your help for sure and your podcast that we can spread the word that we’ve got to be thinking more about this area that’s been historically ignored.
Brett McKay: I’m sure there’s a lot of dads listening to the show, their kids are involved in sports now. We talked before you got on the show. My kids doing flag football this year. He’s done tee-ball and things like that. Our approach is, it’s very casual, but there’s a lot of parents who, they invest a lot in their kids, because they want them to be successful. They’re hoping they get college scholarships. Maybe they’ll go pro, and we’ve probably all seen those specials on the news about parents sending off their kids to these really intense training camps when they’re 10 or 11.
There’s an idea out there that if you want to be great, you have to start young, because there’s the story of Tiger Woods, right? He was golfing when he was three, or Wayne Gretzky, but what’s the research say? Can you spot playmakers that early, and can you really train it like we think we can? If you send your kid to an extensive soccer camp, is that going to help them become a playmaker?
Len Zaichkowsky: The answer, let me start with that, is a definitive no. Yogi Berra, the great philosopher, I chuckle at him, he always says, “A prediction’s difficult, particularly for the future.” All the pro leagues, the colleges, all fail miserably in trying to predict talent at a young age. It really bothers me when I hear colleges offering scholarships to young athletes who might be 13 and 14 years of age, and they’re five or six years from entering college. It’s just so unpredictive. They keep trying to make those kinds of predictions that are based upon that early talent that they’re going to get there.
That ties in also to the whole era of specialization, that you’ve got to start early. The entrepreneurs, of course, that’s how they make their money, having parents invest big money, and kids coming to camp or hiring a team of specialists. When I talk about that, I’m reminded of the great story that probably many of our listeners will not have heard of, but there was the athlete football player at USC, Todd Marinovich. I think he was drafted about 1991 in the first round by Oakland, just absolutely fizzled.
His father had this, he was a football coach, who had the idea that, “I want to train him to be a quarterback. I’ll get all these specialists from the mechanical people to technical people, the nutrition people, the strengthen and conditioning, got all these experts, and just had him so regimented. He had a very modest career at USC and then failed miserably in the pros and then got into drugs and alcohol. But he was so regimented. Even though the father had great intentions, it really backfired on him. That may be the most horrific story that I’ve heard of in sport, where parental beliefs really kind of backfired on it.
Brett McKay: Dan, can you highlight … if specialization doesn’t work. When you guys looked through the research, did most of these playmakers we think of today, like Tom Brady, and basketball players like, did they specialize in their sport at an early age, or were they doing all sorts of different stuff?
Daniel Peterson: No. The common theme that we heard throughout all of those, and, in fact, we have quotes in the book from Brad Stevens, Mike Sullivan, the coach of the Penguins, et cetera, saying, the ones that they look for and the players who are at that elite levels, most of them … Now, we’re going back ten years or so now, they played multiple sports growing up.
What’s interesting is, we did look at a lot of the research, and there was one study in particular that really stuck out. Dr. Arne Güllich, who was the head of the department of sports science at Kaiserslautern University in Germany, he did a very elongated study of the young soccer athletes who went into the elite German Soccer Academy. You can imagine, that’s pretty elite, because soccer is everything in Germany. Some of these kids coming in at age eight, age ten, to these, basically, you move away from home and go to these elite academies. He gave a presentation at the 2016 Youth Athlete Development Conference in Singapore, and he just dropped a bomb on everybody. His opening remark was, “Future top athletes cannot be predicted reliably by way of young age talent identification, particularly early talent development programming is neither necessary nor beneficial but correlates negatively with long-term senior success.”
What he did was he looked and tracked all of these players over time, and he saw that, in fact, he had another quote here, “Their success at the age of ten had zero correlation with their success as a senior.” In other words, he followed them through the years to see if they ended up on elite teams, if they ended up with the German national team, et cetera. He said no, those who were better at a young age were not those who were better at an older age, and of those who were recruited at an age of 11 or 13, by the time they were 19, only nine percent of those kids were still in the program. They had all dropped out by then.
On the other hand, those who made it to the national A team of Germany, those we see in the World Cup, were being built upon gradually across age stages. What they found was, these kids who made it, who are some of the top German stars today, played multiple sports probably up till about the age of high school, age 14, 15. Then they turned their attention and specialized in a sport through the high school ages. But from age six, from age eight, the age of your son, up till high school, it was try to get them in as many sports as possible.
There’s also a physical component and a burnout component as well. Lots of studies from orthopedic surgeons, et cetera, and we’ve seen this a lot in baseball, with kids having surgeries on their elbows in their early teens, that the recommendation from the medical doctors, as well as the cognitive scientists, is to play one sport per season. Play a different sport every season, and then take some time off, as hard as that is for parents to do with their kids.
Some of the research also shows that as long as they play complementary sports that have a similar flow to them … In team sports, if your son or daughter were to play soccer in the fall, basketball or hockey in the winter and maybe lacrosse in the spring and then maybe take June or July off, but those sports are all invasion based, as we call them. They all have similar concepts of offense, defense, passing, shooting, dribbling, moving the ball or puck down the field.
Those cognitive skills cross over between the sports and reinforce each other, but yet they’re using different physical muscles. They’re playing a different sport with different teammates, so they don’t have the mental burnout of playing 12 months a year of soccer, 12 months a year of basketball. I think you’re going to hear more and more of that.
It’s tough for parents to come up against that, because kind of the for-profit coaching machine tells them to, “Oh, your son or daughter has to be playing this sport 10, 12 months a year if you want to get them anywhere.” That’s just simply not true.
Brett McKay: There’s a lot of social pressure too, right?
Len Zaichkowsky: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Because your kid sees all the other kids doing it, and, like, “I got to do that too.”
Len Zaichkowsky: If I could add something here, Brett, the message, the take-home message for parents would be, when your children are young and interested in getting into sport and they’re seeing it on television, hearing it, their friends are playing, have them sample a … We call it sampling. Jean Côté and others in Canada studied this extensively, and they developed different periods of what kids should be doing in terms of talent development. Those years, when they get interested in sport, it may be four or five years of age, six, have them sample a variety of sports, and let the youngster decide what they seem to be best at and what they have a passion for.
As parents, we tend to socialize our kids into sports that we played and we have a passion for in life and think that our kids are going to like it and be good at it. But that just isn’t correct. Have them experience a whole variety of different sports. I know it’s expensive, but that way they’ll get a better sense of what that youngster has a passion for and could really be good at, so give them a try, let them sample.
Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about too is you mentioned earlier, is that sports, youth sports, particularly, is very regimented from an early age, where when I was a kid, I had neighbor kids that we played pickup baseball. We played pickle or we’d play football. What’s going on cognitively in a child’s brain? When they’re playing a sport but it’s not adult supervised, is there something, something different that happens compared to, say, a regimented practice?
Len Zaichkowsky: For one thing, Brett, is that they’re making decisions for themselves. There’s no parent or coach telling them what to do. That’s the great tragedy that we have now is that we’ve lost all that, and the youngsters are being told what to do at a very young age. They find themselves incapable of making decisions for themselves on the field. That was the great thing of sandlot baseball or pond hockey or pickup games in soccer. Kids made their own decisions and made up some of their own rules so that they could advance the play. Yeah, there’s a lot of good things that we’ve lost with organized sport.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting, I remember, you see these parents in America spending lots of money sending their kids to these really intensive baseball camps, and yet a lot of the great players come from these Caribbean countries where they used a paper bag for a glove.
Len Zaichkowsky: Great point, great point, yes.
Brett McKay: You don’t want to specialize early. What’s the best way for those who are parents of athletes, or coaches, who are coaching young people, what’s the best way to coach kids? I was the volunteer dad to be the coach for tee-ball last year, and I remember getting there. Baseball’s a really complicated sport. It’s very abstract. Then there’s the skill is really hard, throwing a ball really hard, hitting a ball off a tee, it’s a small object, hard. Then there’s these rules. I remember one day when we finally … I said, “I’m going to teach them the difference between a forced out and a tag-out.
Daniel Peterson: Good luck.
Brett McKay: It didn’t happen. At that point, I just realized, “You know what? I’m just going to let them have fun.”
Len Zaichkowsky: Sure, they’ll figure it out.
Brett McKay: What is the best approach for coaching ages five to ten? Any insights there from the research?
Daniel Peterson: I’d start with, we talked with another one of Len’s longtime colleagues at the University of New Jersey, Professor Faigenbaum, and he has spent his whole career advocating for what he calls, the technical term, physical literacy, but what he argues is that so many kids today jump right into sports that are coached by parents, well-meaning, I was one of them, but they go way off the deep end as far as teaching them all the minor tactics and tricks and rules and things that they just aren’t ready to handle.
What Professor Faigenbaum says is, first they have to learn to run and jump and spin around and learn all of those physical athletic skills. He said, that’s what used to come, like you said, from just playing outside with your friends, playing tag, climbing trees, et cetera. What he sees when he works with a lot of PE educators in schools is a lot of these kids don’t even know how to do those, some of those things. They’re not good at some of those basic physical skills, and they also don’t have the physical development or the strength, because a lot of that time has been restricted in school, and they don’t do as much of it after school, et cetera.
We put in the book some ideas of just that’s a place to start, is just out there not teaching them a complicated sport but just setting up some basic rules, and, like you said, play catch, play hot box between two bases, things like that. Then going on from there, I think a lot of the literature would say you’re really trying to build up a lot of pattern recognition, being able to see their sport in a lot of different situations.
The old adage of, “Practice like you play,” instead of breaking down a practice session into drills of going around cones and stuff, set up some small-sided games. Football’s an easy one, play four on three tag football or flag football, like you’re doing, and just let them experience it and make decisions about where to cut and when to run and how to avoid people and things like that before you try to teach them offsides and everything like that.’
Len, what do you think?
Len Zaichkowsky: Yeah, if I could add to that, that’s an important concept you brought up here, Brett. One of the things you can’t be afraid of is just to, coaches, to modify the rules a little bit. You see it so much in youth sport, where I’ve had arguments with parents and administrators over things like teaching youngsters baseball at eight, nine years of age. They’re freed of that hard baseball. When somebody developed this little ball, the same size or a little bit smaller, but didn’t have that hardness that a baseball has, it made kids afraid when they got hit by the ball. They said, “No, that’s not baseball. They’ve got to be banged with that real hard baseball to learn the sport.” They really objected to the modification of the ball itself.
Having a smaller basketball, for example, or a smaller soccer ball when they’re first starting out, or the height of the hoop in basketball. They were just, “No, you’ve got to keep it at what level the adults are playing them at.” That’s absolutely insane. Having a smaller ball, lower hoop, now we can teach them the mechanics of making a good free throw or a jump shot if we make those modifications.
As Dan was saying, having them work in tight areas where they get the touch, the ball more frequently in a soccer pitch, or on an ice hockey rink, we did a lot of cross-ice stuff, it not only gives them more touches, but it forces them to think quicker. They’ve got to make quicker decisions, because a defender’s on them all the time.
Another thing that’s important to get at this cognitive dimension, Brett, is that as coaches we’re often telling kids what to do, and as parents we’re telling them what to do. We’ve really lost the art of asking good questions. When you ask questions, kids have to think. When you’re asking them, “Why would you do this,” “What’s a good way to do this,” the wheel’s turning in the young brain of a little athlete. That’s one way of enhancing the cognitive development of kids in sport.
Daniel Peterson: Brett, I’m just going to bring up one quote that we have in the book from a Dr. Istvan Balyi, who is a world expert in developing these player development plans that you see from a lot of the national sport organizations. He’s done USA hockeys, US lacrosses. He’s worked with Olympic committees, et cetera, to understand this idea of physical literacy and building sport skill over time, not all at once. A quote that he always likes to use in his presentations is, and this is Dr. Balyi, “I learned this from Jesuit priests in Ireland. If you want to teach Latin to Johnny, you have to know Latin, and obviously you have to know Johnny.
“Instead of Latin, if you want to teach any sport to Johnny, you have to know that sport, which we do obviously very well, and you have to know Johnny. We know the sport very well, but we do not know Johnny or Jane from age six to 16.” He goes on to talk about, “You can’t just impose an adult training program on little kids. You need to adjust it down to their cognitive level.”
Brett McKay: One really great brass tack piece of advice that I got from that was that the research about working memory in kids and when you’re instructing them. As a parent, I’m watching my kid play, and I’m shouting instructions at him, right? You think it’s helpful, but when you guys talked about it, no, a kid’s working memory is not very developed. The prefrontal cortex is not very developed, so when you’re just barking these instructions, they’re trying to contain all that information that you’re sending them while also trying to process what’s going on in the sport, the game itself, and it just shuts down and they don’t do well. Basically, the tip was, just shut-up and let your kid play.
Daniel Peterson: It’s interesting, just to go a little bit deep in some of the cognitive part of that, one of the, a few of the scientists that we quote in the book really do not do their work in sports, but a very well-known one is Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize, and Kahneman came out with the book, Thinking Fast and Slow several years ago. He introduced the whole topic of how humans make decisions with system one and system two.
System one is you’re thinking fast. Two plus two is four. You don’t have to really think about it. The ball’s flying at your head, like Len said, you’re going to duck, or you will the second time. Those are the system one things. Those are the automatic things. In a sports world, that’s when you have mastered a skill. That’s when you can dribble a basketball without looking at the basketball, or you can stick-handle a puck without watching the puck.
The system two is the more deliberate analytical side, where you actually have to stop and think to figure something out. Obviously, when you’re learning to do a new skill, you’re stopping to look at your hand as you’re dribbling the basketball until you can figure it out for sure. It’s the same way, like you said, on a field or on a court, among all that chaos, what we want is we want system one happening. We want automaticity. We want kids who see something, see an opportunity, see an opening, see a pass, and they just do it instinctively, intuitively. That comes from years and years of pattern recognition, of seeing opportunities, “Oop, tried that once and it didn’t work.”
Slowly, subconsciously, that database of ideas and patterns build up until the point where it just looks automatic. They always talk about the game slowing down at a higher level, that’s the process. It’s going from system two to system one, where they can just react the way they should.
Like you said, when a parent, a well-meaning parent … I’ve been there, I know … yells, “No, pass over there to Fred,” your son or daughter already had an idea in their head of what they were going to do, and now you’ve just introduced a whole other decision there, and they slow down and they lose the ball or they make a bad pass. Or when a coach yells the play by play from the sideline of exactly every pass they should make, it disrupts that automaticity and learning process. Like you said, the best thing to do is cheer positively and don’t give them specific instructions.
Brett McKay: Let’s recap here for coaching young kids or parenting young kids who are athletes. Don’t want to specialize early. Let them play lots of different sports. Don’t make the practices too regimented, but make them more like game play, so maybe do little mini games within practice so they can recognize those patterns and get that, practice those skills that underlie the game. Would that be a good summary?
Len Zaichkowsky: Sure, yeah. Ask questions a lot. Don’t always be telling them, even though it’s a more efficient way of running a practice, but talk to the kids and ask them questions. Challenge them mentally.
Brett McKay: See, that’s a great question. I always wonder how do I, if I’m watching my kid do something and I see something that, okay, maybe he should have done something differently. Do you bring that up right after, in the car ride home? Do you ask a question like, “What were you thinking in this?” You don’t want to ask it in a way, like, “What were you thinking, you idiot?” What kind of advice there? How do you have that conversation with your kid so they can develop more cognitively for their sport.
Len Zaichkowsky: It’s heightening that awareness, picking your spots when to do it. It may not be in the car ride home. Wait for a while, depending upon whether there was a success or failure. It’s asking those questions of your children as a parent or as a coach, I think is really healthy. Without coming across as, it’s really an inquisition, but rather, how are they seeing the field and the pitch or the court. They might be seeing it very differently when they’re on there than you as a parent or a coach on the sideline, because they’re getting a different angle. It’s always good to hear them, but do it with a little bit of humor too and encouraging them to talk it through and ask why they make these decisions.
Daniel Peterson: Brett, I always, when my guys were little, we had a hockey coach, a great guy, and he told us parents on the first day of the season, he said, “Abide by the parking lot rule,” and we’re like, “What’s the parking lot rule?” He said, “After a game, you start up your car. Your kid’s in the car. You’re heading out of the parking lot. By the time you get out of the parking lot, stop talking about the game. That’s it.” Just, “Good game,” “Bad game,” maybe one question, but once you leave the parking lot it’s done and don’t dwell on it. I thought that was always useful. I guess that doesn’t mean you can sit in the parking lot and yell at them. Basically, you get about 30 seconds or a minute to talk about the game, and then it’s over. Let it go.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think a lot of parents worry if they don’t do the regimen stuff, they’re not going to pick up the game, but the kids are picking this stuff up. You just have to give them opportunities. I think that’s reassuring.
At what point can kids start specializing? Is it different? I imagine, maybe it’s different for every kid.
Len Zaichkowsky: It’s different for every kid, and maybe by sport, you’ll see the specialization in something like gymnastics, when they start awfully young. Swimming to some extent has that as well, when they start young. I think there’s a belief system that that is fairly important that they start young, but most of the other sports, no. Sample different ones.
I remember Sidney Crosby telling me in my long interview with him that he played every conceivable sport he could as a kid, and he didn’t specialize in hockey until he was around 14 or 15, but he said there were so many transferable skills that he learned, and he said even cognitively, like the different patterns of play. You learn something from every sport, and you can transfer. He says you just won’t get that by playing one sport, and exposed to different coaches as well will give you different ideas on how to process information. Yeah, that’s my take on that.
Daniel Peterson: Yeah, I think some of the researchers said, based on what, where some of the elite athletes have come from, a lot of them didn’t start until about that high school age, about 14 or 15 years old, that they really get rid of the other sports in their life and pick one. Certainly, like you said, every child’s different. Some may never get rid of them. The three-letter athlete in high school has become more and more rare, but they’re still out there, and there’s no reason you have to quit the other sports.
I know there’s all this, I’ve lived through it, the whole quest for the college scholarship and all of that, and a couple of my guys did that. But it’s a conversation with them at that age of, “Hey, if you really want to go for it from high school and beyond, here’s probably some things we need to do, but you don’t have to. You can keep playing all of your sports if you want,” and then they make the decision.
Len Zaichkowsky: I think the data are pretty clear too that specialization is much earlier today than it was when David Hemery did his study in the mid-1980s. I think of the 50-some athletes he interviewed, they were specializing at about age 15. I don’t know what they are, the exact number, would be today, but I suspect it’s much younger than 15 years of age to specialize in sports that they’re playing.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you see very few … Even in college, multi-sport player. I think OU has one, right, a quarterback for OU.
Len Zaichkowsky: Oh, yeah, he’s good. Good baseball player.
Brett McKay: Baseball player, football. There are not a lot of Deion Sanders anymore or Bo Jacksons, Jim Thorpes, right?
Len Zaichkowsky: Part of that, I think, Brett, is, as parents we think we’ve got to do the right thing. There are good entrepreneurs out there that are salespeople, and they’ll say, “There’s only one way to get to the top. You’ve got to stick with me, and they’ve got to play 12 months a year and we’ll start early.” They buy into that. They think more is better. These people aren’t reading journal articles or the sports science information, so how would they know? They’re hoping that they’re making the right decision. Intuitively, it might make sense to them, but the research just does not support that.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about so far how the brain works, the child’s brain works, when they’re learning a sport and the best way to approach that when they’re young and we want to specialize later on when they’re in high school, but you also can on research, saying how sports can affect cognition and that cognition carries over to other parts of our life. Because oftentimes we think of sport, it’s very domain-specific, but there’s research showing that when you play sports, you work parts of your brain that can help you in decision-making and, say, just school, work, et cetera.
Daniel Peterson: Yeah. One of the interesting studies that we looked at was from the University of Illinois, Dr. Beckman and who’s …? Dr. Hillman at University of Illinois.
Len Zaichkowsky: Chuck Hillman, yeah.
Daniel Peterson: Yeah. They did some very interesting studies, probably about five or six years ago, where they had, they have a facility there that they call the cave. It’s basically almost 180-degree surround screen where they can flash movies and images of environments up there and then test certain things as you react to them. One of the things they had in there was a scene of a busy street, and your job was to cross the virtual street without getting hit by the cars.
They brought in University of Illinois student athletes, and they brought in some recreational athletes, and then they brought in some athletes who didn’t play a lot of sports. They tested them as far as their ability to know when to cross the street virtually, in other words, timing things. There’s cars coming both ways and all of that.
The first thing they found is that, yes, indeed, elite athletes got across the street better than the recreational athletes or the non-athletes, but then they also threw in some things like distractions, as most students are distracted. They’ll have a phone ringing. They’ll have them look at a phone while they try to cross the street, et cetera.
There again, for what they found is that the elite athletes had better awareness, peripheral vision, et cetera, and they were able to get across safer. It still didn’t answer the question, and they admit that this … They haven’t asked the question, whether it’s nature or nurture. Are these elite athletes better at this because they played sports and that trained their cognitive abilities, or are they elite athletes because they were born with better cognitive abilities, a lot like the David Epstein discussion that he’s brought up of, is it genetic or is it training. That goes into the whole ten-thousand-hour discussion, et cetera, which we’ll get to.
They have also found that they’ve tested athletes who can show better vision results and other things, but usually they only show better vision perception, et cetera, when they’re in a sports context. If you show a bunch of elite soccer players a soccer situation and stop something and have them think about working memory or whatever, they find that in a soccer setting they do much better than people who are not soccer players. But in a non-sport-specific context, they don’t. They’re not that much better. They don’t have that many more cognitive gifts than the general population. Still a lot of interesting research to do out there, but a few hints here and there.
Len Zaichkowsky: Yeah. Let me add a little bit to what Dan said, Brett. There are a couple of studies that I’m quite familiar with. My colleague at the University of Montreal, Jocelyn Flaubert, developed a device called the neurotracker, which is really multiple object tracking. It takes incredible cognitive skills, particularly attention skills and executive function processing skills to do well on the task.
This is published in prestigious journals Nature and Science, and basically has demonstrated that elite athletes outperform other people on that. We don’t know if that’s something that they were gifted with. I tend to think it is something that sport helped them develop. Yeah, they may have had high baseline to start with, but sports certainly contributed to that.
Then we cite in the book also a famous Danish study looking at executive functions of high-end soccer players. Lo and behold, they used a couple of Spanish players that I worked with in 2006 and ’08. Iniesta was one of them, and I think Ramos was the other.
Brett McKay: Xabi?
Len Zaichkowsky: Yeah, yeah, Xabi. It was Xabi. That’s right. They were just off the charts on executive functioning, a standard psychological test they used for looking at executive functioning abilities. They were, just nobody close to that. Here again, did they come into the world with those great abilities, or did the kind of football they played helped develop it? I’m leaning toward the latter for sure.
Brett McKay: I know there’s a lot of discussion too now about the role of physical education or sports in school, and when there’s all this pressure now for kids to do well on tests, so a lot of schools are dropping PE, they’re dropping sports. They go, “What are they missing out? Is that going to affect how well they actually do on these tests because they’re not exercising their brain in that way.”
Len Zaichkowsky: Exactly right. You hit that right on. My good former student and colleague, Avery Faigenbaum in New Jersey, he’s the world’s advocate on that, and I think there are a lot of pretty bright people who would support that. We’ve got to have that exercise dimension to enhance brain function. It’s just that the policymakers believe there’s, you just got to have more reading, writing and arithmetic, and the world’s problems will be solved. Not true.
Brett McKay: So far we’ve been talking about … This is very recreational. For me, sports are important for kids because you make a lot of memories. You make friends. You get to exercise. You get to work your brain a different way, so I think for most parents who are listening, this is going to be useful advice. Their kid will play sports through high school, and they’ll have a good time, but what about, we talked about it earlier. Can you recognize if a kid, say, they’re a senior high school. He has a chance to do well in college. Is that possible? Can you see, you can see the playmaker ability there, or even if he gets to college, maybe he has a chance to go pro. Is that possible? Are there things we can look for that will determine performance later on in their athletic development? I’m not talking when they’re ten. I’m talking when they’re 18, 17 years old.
Len Zaichkowsky: Let me comment on that, Brett, is that up until now, in every major sport that I’ve worked in, the drafts are very poor at predicting those who are going to make it. They keep repeating the same mistakes, because they basically look at the attributes that they can easily measure, those easy to measure athlete speed, athlete strength, their motion, their biomechanics, and they try to create an equation that’s going to predict whether they’re going to be successful as a collegiate player or a pro player, the men and women.
The prediction rate has been terrible. Why? My opinion is that the area that they’re missing may be the most important one in the equation. It’s not part of the equation, and that’s these perceptual cognitive abilities of that individual. Because we haven’t been able to measure it up until now, it’s not part of the equation, and it kind of makes the prediction terrible, as it’s been.
I predict, I’m making this prediction, that in the future it’s going to get a lot better, because now we’re at that point that it is scientifically where we can measure these perceptual cognitive abilities. We cite that in the book, and I keep talking about it, where there’s really good things happening in the world of sport and sports science, where we’re able to measure these perceptual abilities, cognitive abilities, and I think it’s going to enhance the predictive ability of talent scouts.
Brett McKay: What are they doing to test for that cognitive aspect of the sport or they’re starting to?
Len Zaichkowsky: Let me briefly mention a couple of them. The first thing we talk about in part two of the book is being able to read the play. It’s a kind of perceptual skills. Most of it’s with vision, of course. Certainly we rely on some of our other senses too, but vision is the primary one. What are we seeing out there? There’s a company called RightEye, R-I-G-H-T-E-Y-E, RightEye, that in ten minutes gets you all the valuable visual metrics that are important for basically every sport. It’s more than just doing acuity test with an optometrist. It captures these wonderful metrics that’s getting a lot of traction in the world of sport in the last couple of years. I’m very familiar with that company and how they’re doing it. I think that’s adding to our predictability by measuring these perceptual skills.
Then the decision-making part, you may know from knowing the football world a bit, they’ve used this Wonderlic test, which was kind of a 1930s primitive IQ test. I think the Dallas Cowboys introduced it to see if they could identify smart quarterbacks way back when. They continue to use the Wonderlic. Every year they talk about how somebody scored on the Wonderlic even though it’s supposed to be confidential. It’s a terrible predictor or measurement tool for cognitive abilities.
My good friend Scott Goldman started a project when he was at the University of Arizona and then when he moved to Michigan, fine-tuned it. He’s developed something called the AIQ, or the athlete intelligent quotient. It basically looks at important executive functions, the kinds of intelligence markers that you need, basically, executive function skills, to be a good athlete. That’s getting a lot of traction in the high performance world, and I think it’s only going to alert most of the sporting community that we’ve got a way now of measuring those executive functions that work on the prefrontal cortex and so forth.
Now that we can insert into the equation the perceptual dimension and the decision-making dimension, I think it’s going to do great things for the predictability of athletes at the college level and at the professional level.
Daniel Peterson: You know, Brett, another, just to add onto what Len said, in high school football, we have a section, I think is chapter two, called, What Gets Measured Gets Noticed, and one of the things they have every year for the elite high school football players is Nike sponsors have called the opening. It’s regional competitions across the country. I believe there are six of them. Then if you do well at the regional competition, you get invited to the national competition. These are high school football players looking to move onto college or get recruited for college.
One of the things that we noticed, and we looked at a lot of the numbers, et cetera, and the conversation about it, was, the national recruiting services will rate a player three-star, four-star, five-star, and then they go to these combines basically. They do run some football specific plays, et cetera, and look at them that way, but one of the things they do is they put them through these physical tests, the Nike spark test for speed, power, reaction time, agility and quickness. These are all measures of their athleticism.
What’s interesting is what we found, is that at the regional, at the national level, the players who were five-star recruits as ranked by national scouts, were not always the ones who scored at the highest levels within their position group in the physical test, the athletic test, and vice versa. The guys who scored really well on the spark test were maybe three-star recruits.
All right. Well, then what’s the X factor then? Why are these guys ranked five stars when they’re not even the best athletes within their position group? Certainly they’re elite athletes among the rest of us, but within their position group and within their peers, physically they’re not as gifted as the others, yet they’re ranked higher.
That’s where we started thinking, that’s where we need to start measuring or find a way to measure the cognitive end. In fact, we were so interested in that, and in exactly your question, how do we measure this decision-making component, I think that’s become … Len and I have decided that’s the topic of our next book in 2019, is to look specifically at decision-making in sports and dive deep into that and all of the interesting science and interesting anecdotes about good decisions, bad decisions, winning games, losing games, how do you coach decisions, how do you measure decisions and all of those things. There’s a lot of work still left to be done there.
Brett McKay: No, for sure. One of you mentioned the 10,000-hour-rule in practice, because we’ve had Anders Ericsson on the podcast to discuss this. I thought one of the really kind of counterintuitive findings you have in the book is that at an elite level, it seems like more practice doesn’t help. You give the example of, is it Kyle Ivory? No. The basketball player who just decided he wasn’t going to practice anymore.
Daniel Peterson: Oh, Allen Iverson, yeah.
Brett McKay: Allen Iverson, right?
Daniel Peterson: His famous rant.
Brett McKay: His famous rant against practice. I thought that was kind of interesting. He’s like, it doesn’t seem to help that much at a certain point. What’s going on there?
Len Zaichkowsky: I think in Iverson’s case, his practice days were when he was in college, so when he’s in the NBA for 12 years, skipping a practice isn’t going to significantly affect Allen Iverson. I think that’s what he, when he raised all that, that ire about why is practice important. His skillset was all automated by that time, you know? Getting an extra 15 minutes in wasn’t going to make much difference for Allen Iverson, but for a developing athlete, it’s hugely important. I’m sure you learned that from Anders Ericsson, that it’s got to be deliberate practice.
We had a great interview. I’ve known Anders for many years, that he just doesn’t see much of this what he called deliberate practice, I referred more purposeful practice, where you’re actually trying to accomplish something, not just going through routine stuff at any level, whether it’s at the youth level or collegiate level or at the pros. You have to be trying to get better with each and every practice on certain sub-skills.
Daniel Peterson: I think he probably clarified and summarized better than I could the whole conversation about 10,000-hour theory. Even Malcolm Gladwell in his Outliers book, he didn’t really even mess it up that bad. Before that it was somewhat of an obscure piece of research by Dr. Ericsson among people outside of his field, and it was on musicians. It wasn’t even on athletes.
Malcolm will say this as well, and we have some of his quotes in the book, that he didn’t play up, he called it the 10,000-hour-rule, but other than that, it just kind of one of those things that took off on its own, that people heard 10,000 hours is what you need to be world class, and that’s the thing that stuck, whereas Gladwell and Ericsson will say, “That’s not the thing that we wanted to stick. What we wanted to stick was the idea of deliberate practice,” as Len said, where you’re focusing on something specific, preferably a weakness. You have a coach there to guide you. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t like doing it, but over time you will get better at these things.
That goes back to our discussion about automaticity. You’re moving from system two to system one with all of that practice. If you just go out in the driveway and shoot baskets for an hour casually, okay, you can chalk that up as an hour of practice, but you really didn’t improve anything.
One of the quotes that Anders gave us during our interview is, he’s saying, “I’m basically arguing that when you look at a lot of the practice that I’ve seen, visiting all sorts of different teams, very little of that is actually even getting close to this idea of individualized, deliberate practice where somebody’s doing something that is uniquely appropriate for them to improve some aspects of their performance in some individualized context.”
That’s his mission and maybe … He said something similar when he talked to you, but that’s his mission, is to push the deliberate practice part, not the quantity.
Brett McKay: I imagine you wouldn’t want to do this deliberate practice on young kids with the skills, just have them throw balls over and over and over again and make it reggie. You just want them to play, but I imagine as you get, you decide to specialize, you’re going to start spending more time refining skills. That’s when the coach come in.
I imagine at an elite level, the practice that you’re doing, it’s not so much the physical skill of it, but it’s the mental part, like the film. If you’re a football player, it’s like you’re spending a lot of time watching film, analyzing things, how you could have done things better, increasing that pattern recognition in your brain.
Len Zaichkowsky: Right, exactly.
Daniel Peterson: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Guys, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Daniel Peterson: It’s available just about anywhere. It should be in your local bookstores. It’s obviously on Amazon and all the online booksellers. It’s called The Playmaker’s Advantage. It is in our website is 80PercerntMental.com, 8-0-Percent-Mental.com. People can also follow me on Twitter at @DanielPeterson, all one word. Like I said, we’ve had it out there since June. Getting a lot of good feedback. It’s available in hardcover, audio version or eBook, and then there’s a paperback coming out in January.
Brett McKay: Len Zaichkowsky, Daniel Peterson, thanks so much for coming on. It’s been a great conversation.
Daniel Peterson: Well, thanks, Brett.
Len Zaichkowsky: Thanks for having us on, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Len Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson. They are the authors of the book, The Playmaker’s Advantage. It’s available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about their work at 80PercentMental.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Playmaker where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoy the show, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it.
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