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Long Term Athlete Development is Doomed

Todd Beane, Founder of TOVO International  discusses his views on Long Term Athlete Development and whether due to the nature of today’s desire for instant gratification, if the concept is in fact doomed.

One child.

One marshmallow.

One room.

A child sits in front of a sweet treat while knowing that if he refrains from eating it for fifteen minutes, he will get two to enjoy.

How many children delay their gratification?

Not that many it turns out.

Psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues from Stanford University conducted this experiment over 40 years ago. And the majority of children ate the treat before the time limit. It is referred to as “The Marshmallow Test.”

If you are now thinking to yourself that a “bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” you would have failed as well. “ “A marshmallow now…!”

Me, too. I love marshmallows.

How many of us are prepared to forgo immediate gratification for delayed benefits?

How many of us as coaches are wired to execute long-term athlete development plans?

Not many as I see it.

Not because we are horrible coaches, but because we are human. We seem to employ the “get it now” limbic system of our brains a bit more than we employ the “delay for future benefits” prefrontal cortex.

And our youth players? Well, their wiring is still in process and not inclined to think about their future selves today.

“Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions…The brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.“ (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University)

Dr. Silvia Bunge, a professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley, goes on to explain what happens in our players, “It (executive function) improves radically over the first few years; it continues to improve through adolescence. It is not until early adulthood that you have adult-type networks that are strongly activated that connect different brain regions together.”

Even as adults we tend to seek immediate gratification. Have you not noticed that the doughnut shops are booming. As coaches we also tend to seek immediate gratification. Like winning this weekend.

Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is doomed.

The player is not wired for LTAD.

The coach is not prone to LTAD.

The club does not incentivize LTAD.

The federation, quite simply, is a federation. They have a nice website.

So now what? It is easy for me as a coach, parent, or blogger to complain, but that solves nothing. Complaining is just another fruitless impulse.

What can we do about it? We need to learn from professionals in fields outside of soccer. Believe it or not, those crazy people who do not share our passion for the game can be pretty smart folks. I ventured out of the stadium a few times to take a peek and they are not that crazy after all. Trust me.

Let me start with one thing based upon what these wise people tell us. This actually warrants a book, not a blog. But, let’s start with one small step.

We need to reframe the future as now. Our future selves are strangers to us in many ways, including some very sophisticated neurological ways. So, the concept of selling the future to us as creatures of the now is not very effective.

We need to take action on what makes us better now and it has to be personal (hence, the not so subtle shift into the first person).

What specific thing can I do as a coach that makes me better today? What positive choices can I execute that make me more productive, healthier and happier today?

As a coach, I can…

1. Shake my player’s hand before and after training.

2. Applaud a child for attempting to use his weak foot.

3. Drink water instead of packaged fruit juices.

4. Catch a player doing something well.

5. Say “thank you” ten times.

6. Use rondos to train decision-making.

7. Use position play games to promote cognitive development.

8. Ask players many questions and leave all my statements at home.

9. Read this evening.

10. Sleep eight hours tonight.

I can resist the negative impulses I have today, on and off the pitch. I can replace them with positive actions. I will feel great immediately after each action. Now, when it matters to me most.

I am not going to resolve Long Term Athlete Development. I need not worry about that herculean task. And I am not going to magically wire executive functioning into my players’ neurological framework.

But I am going to be my best self today. I will make my players better athletes. Now. In the 90 minutes I have with them. I will feel the endorphins swirl about my system today.

And by the way, please do not tell anyone this. Ssssh! (We are actually going to be implementing a remarkable long-term athlete development plan without anyone knowing it.)

Thanks for today and enjoy your marshmallow.

About the Author

As Co-Founder of Cruyff Football and Senior Advisor to the Cruyff Institute, Todd has traveled the world educating professional athletes and coaches. After thirteen years working with his mentor Johan Cruyff, Todd launched TOVO International. TOVO Training is a research-based total football methodology that develops creative and capable footballers. To learn more, click here.

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