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The American Way to Play

by Brian McCormick, CSCS
Director, High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA

When the United States lost in the 2002 World Championships and again in the 2004 Olympics, critics searched for reasons to explain the demise of American basketball, pointing to the lack of shooting proficiency or the players' selfishness. Few mentioned the work of other countries, where a systematic approach to basketball development has elevated the national programs of many countries, putting several on par with the United States, despite the lack of NBA players on these rosters.

Throughout the world, various countries' national programs have organized programs for long term athlete development to guide individual development through the important pre-puberty, puberty and post-puberty years, insuring athletes receive the best training and have the best opportunity to reach their peak potential.

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In the United States, the development program is fragmented by the interests of AAU and high school coaches. From the time a player starts playing to the end of his career, little thought is given to long term athletic development; instead, the emphasis each season is winning games. Youth coaches stand the tallest kid close to the basket, even though he may be finished growing and never reach six-feet tall; coaches rarely play the least talented player, even though he may have all the tools to eventually progress and succeed in the sport.

Whereas other countries unite under one model of development, and postpone serious formal competition and training to win until the late teens, American athletes progress with little thought to next season or the athlete's career.

Many in the United States criticize the club programs of European nations, where teenagers play for professional clubs, sometimes even getting paid. We applaud the high school system and its virtues. However, in reality, our amateur system is more professional (that is, concentrated on winning) than is the professional model abroad, where players are given time to improve and develop.

While Europeans develop under a plan where peak performance should be reached between age 22-26, Americans speed the development process, ignoring important general, fundamental steps, rushing through the development period and jumping almost immediately into the training to win stage, where emphasis is placed on performance outputs and results, not learning and developing. For this reason, many athletes reach their respective peaks early in their teens, rather than later as they reach adulthood.

The emphasis here is on the high school athlete and winning high school games; abroad, junior teams are more focused on development. In Europe, these clubs focus on development to feed the professional clubs. Here, we assume most high school athletes will never reach the DI/professional level, so we speed development and emphasize high school results. In the process, we incur many overuse injuries and burnout due to players' early specialization and less than optimal general athletic development in the fundamental/foundation stage.

However, why the pressure to perform for the non-elite athlete? Why not allow a more gradual development with more exposure to a wide variety of activities? If we acknowledge that most high school athletes will never play professional sports, shouldn't the development model be to produce healthy, active adults who enjoy numerous recreational opportunities in order to stay fit and healthy? In the process, the elite athlete attains a wider array of general athletic abilities which serves him well when he specializes in one sport and embarks on his college and professional career with a foundation to sustain continued development.

By rushing development in pursuit of junior national championships and high school victories, we short-change the elite athlete, who peaks early in his career, and the non-elite athlete, who lacks exposure to a variety of activities. A long term athletic development model serves the interests of the elite and non-elite athlete, while the current American development system fails everyone.

Contact Information:

Brian McCormick, CSCS, Director
High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA
Phone 503.975.2980
Contact Coach McCormick by email.
General Information.

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