What's it Take to Develop Athletic Talent?

by Brian McCormick, CSCS, MSS

In grade school, everyone talked about the Morrison clan. At that time, they were four brothers (they added a little sister when we moved to high school) grouped between six grades, and each excelled athletically. Each appeared to be the strongest, fastest child in his grade. Before I knew anything about competitive sports, my dad showed me their names in the box scores from local swimming events in the Sunday paper. Before I realized that soccer was a real sport – it was never on television, and I had never seen it played outside our recreational season – they played on a “competitive team.”

Three played Division I soccer, and one was a 1st Team All-American and professional player. They also played high school basketball (at least one was team MVP) and baseball (despite not playing Little League) and probably would have played football if it did not conflict with soccer. Since they were my only grade school friends who excelled in soccer (and swimming for that matter), we figured that they were born as good soccer players or their dad made them into good soccer players somehow.

Every town seems to have a similar family. In Sports Illustrated in February, Gary Smith detailed such a family from Grand Forks, North Dakota: the Lamoureux family. By now, the Lamoureuxes may be famous – the twin daughters, Jocelyne and Monique played for the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team at the Olympics. Their four older brothers are All-American or professional hockey players in their own right.

Smith recounts the typical story of athlete development. The story starts with parental support, as hockey is not a cheap sport to play with all the equipment to buy and team and rink fees to pay. Chauffeuring six children to hockey practice and games can be a full-time job, and none of the children can excel without that type of support to allow the children an opportunity to develop their talents.

Of course, when six children excel to such a degree, other parents get jealous. Rather than celebrate their achievements or learn from their experience, people criticize the parents. As Smith writes:

“There was only one way that many Lamoureuxes could play the game at that level of aggression and skill, some Grand Forkers grumbled: Those children had no choice, they were over-scheduled robots. Why, their father was planning to ship the boys to Russia and the girls to Winnipeg to master the game. He beat them if they didn’t play and work out hard went the wild rumors heard by the kids. He made them do drills and box each other in their basement.”

People said the same thing about the Morrisons. When other people succeed, those who are not as successful create excuses to explain their own lack of success and to knock down the successful. However, these comments show a lack of understanding of the talent development process. While there are some famous examples to the contrary – Pistol Pete Maravich, Jennifer Capriati, Todd Marinovich – pushy parents are not the way to develop talent. Successful people – in sports, school or business – are self-motivated and choose to engage in the activity for their own enjoyment and satisfaction.

Moreover, often the circumstances leading to excellence are lucky or pure happenstance. I do not remember why or how the Morrisons ended up on a swim team when they were so young. As I recall, he may have been the only one in my class with a pool in his backyard when we started first grade, so maybe that had something to do with it or maybe his mother or father was a swimmer (I never asked).

In the case of the Lamoureuxes, one reason for their athletic prowess was purely coincidental. In North Dakota, there are streams called coulees cut from the Ice Age. In 1987, a developer in Grand Forks knocked out a bank and created a 70×200-foot hole and filled it with water. The Lamoureuxes did not notice this on the next cul-de-sac when they moved into the neighborhood. However, as Smith explains:

One freak year the shallow coulee froze in late September, and a few other times at Halloween. But it almost always congealed by mid-November, a month or more before the local rinks opened, allowing the Lamoureuxes—who spent 20 hours a weekend at the coulee and another dozen during the week—to amass thousands more skating hours than their peers.

Recent books like Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers cite and support K. Anders Ericsson’s research into expert performance that has found that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Living around the corner from the coulee, something that occurred completely by chance, provided the young Lamoureuxes a giant advantage, and they made the most of their advantage by playing early and often on the ice.

While The Talent Code and Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence argue for more structured practice, in Developing Sport Expertise, Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas argue that deliberate play is as instrumental as structured practice, and this play counts toward the 10,000 hours needed for expert performance. They define deliberate play as “activities such as backyard soccer or street basketball that are regulated by age-adapted rules and are set up and monitored by the children or adults engaged in the activity. These activities are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.”

As Smith explains, the Lamoureuxes would engage in deliberate play for hours, all the while sharpening their skating and stick skills, as well as developing their game awareness.

“They’d bundle up in long johns, extra socks, sweatpants, snow pants, sweatshirts, winter jackets, bomber hats, two pairs of gloves and sometimes, at 20 or 30 below, when the prairie winds hurled a mix of snow and dirt that locals called snirt, in wool face masks that made them look like frosted fiends…

“The kids would launch practice shots at Phil, who’d begun goaltending in his diapers…Then they’d play free-for-all, a cacophony of chirps over big saves and takeaways, until someone shouted, “Sticks in the middle!” At that they’d fling their sticks into a heap, one boy wading into the pile with his wool hat pulled over his eyes, blindly grabbing two at a time and tossing one to either side again and again till none remained, divvying up the group into two teams.

“When they raced along the railroad ties girding the embankment on the Howes’ side, they were flying along the boards at the Montreal Forum. It was their Forum, no adult eyes on them, emboldening Phil to call out, “I’m Richter!” and Jacques to yelp, “I’m Messier!” and Pierre-Paul and Mario to turn into Leetch and Lemieux, and all of them to try the wriggles and whirls and between-the-legs sorcery they saw on TV.”

When we explain athletic success, these are the moments that we ignore. These days, everyone has a personal trainer and sports lessons. Around the same time that Smith wrote about the Lamoreuxes, Luke Winn wrote about University of Virginia star basketball player Sylvan Landesberg. Winn asked him about his trainers, as he had a “dribbling coach, a shooting coach, a weightlifting specialist and a boxing instructor,” in addition to his club-team coach and his high school coach. This is the modern-day way to develop a star athlete: surround him with more and more high-priced instructors.

However, regardless of the instructors and coaches, great athletes spring from a love of playing the game – they are not manufactured by specialty coaches.

“The first layer of the heart—that’s what the twins’ coach in high school, Gordie Stafford, would call that deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game that was being implanted at the coulee. That’s what no organized version of a sport could implant in the chest of a child, what no dynasty dad or minivanning mom could ever arrange. That’s what made the Lamoureuxes lucky.”

Talent development has more to do with playing hockey on a frozen pond in below-freezing weather than working with the right coach. A coach or trainer can augment a player’s development by giving him some technical tools, but without the intrinsic motivation and pure desire to play the game, the technical skills are insufficient. The great athletes develop the “deep-down-in-the-tissue love for the game.”

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Brian McCormick, CSCS, MSS, is the founder of the Youth Basketball Coaching Association which provides clinics, training and certifications for youth coaches.  He is the performance director for Train for Hoops and director of coaching for Playmakers Basketball Development League.  He is the author of  the highly acclaimed Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development and his newest book, 180 Shooter an innovative system for developing shooters from the free throw line, 2 point and 3 point areas.  A 180 shooter is someone whose cumulative percentages equal 180; generally, to reach 180, the goal is 90% ft, 50% from 2-pt and 40% from 3-pt line.  For more information you can contact him at: (916) 225-8524.

8 thoughts on “What's it Take to Develop Athletic Talent?

  • May 6, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Good post, but what may have been glossed over is Gladwell’s REAL thesis for Outliers: that once you see a crack in the door towards an opportunity that may give you an unfair competitive advantage (en route to the 10_000 hours of expertise), you must walk through that door confidently as if it were meant for you, and seize the opportunity. Those who seize vs those wo don’t is what separates the Robert Oppenheimers from the Chris Langans.

    • May 7, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      What a great observation! So true…so necessary! Good fortune comes when preparation meets opportunity – but to seize the opportunity is not to hesitate. Thanks.

  • June 23, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Hiya, I was reading one more factor about this on another blog. Interesting. Your perspective on it is diametrically contradicted from what I read earlier. I’m nonetheless pondering of the opposite elements of view, but I’m leaning to a great extent toward yours. And irrespective, that’s what is so perfect about modern-day democracy as well as the industry of ideas online.

  • November 4, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    You have to spend at least ten minutes a day at anything you want to be great at. Make sure you observe any changes your child may suddenly go through…like homonial changes. Encourage your child to understand the importance of staying away from trouble and get good grades. And never skip a day of quality time. 5 to 10 minutes is all it tskes.

  • September 25, 2014 at 5:19 am

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    • September 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm

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