The following is partially transcribed from a Process2Perform podcast (S2E29)...
I had a great talk with a friend this past weekend about his kid and how much they should be training; he wanted to know just how seriously do they need to take sports at 13 years old. On the surface just the question sounds crazy I know, but the athlete is transitioning to a more competitive environment, the stakes are inevitably a little higher; and parents in general are always concerned whether their athletes are doing not enough or too much.
When I got into the NFL – one of my head coaches had a cot in his office because he wouldn’t stop working until 4am. There wasn’t time to go home he figured, just slide under the desk and get some sleep. I saw the same thing when I got back into the league on the other side of the fence – there is this idea that if you are working for 16 hours – I have to work for 17. Maybe more like 19 and 20...
I actually had a football executive tell me the only way up was first in, last out, and make sure to let everyone know you are there. No mention about the quality of work. Quality didn’t matter to him, just wanted to produce face time. He was trying to help me, but that goes against just about everything I stand for. Unfortunately for me, quality matters more than hours; likely a big reason I didn't find the second sting in the league as favorable as the first.
The issue that many parents face, is that parents are coming from their own reference point; meaning that whatever level they reached in sports – that model is somewhere in their minds applying itself to their athletes.
I think that makes sense – we enter into everything with our own experiences. And because we are human, we carry that baggage with us when making decisions about our kids. If you played high school sports and never aspired for more – the relationship that you have with sports, and the reference point you have when interacting with your athletes; that might be different than your neighbors.
What sport you played also make a huge difference; is it school, it is club, is it private? Did you train with a trainer or with a team, did you do both? Were weights an important part of the equation for you? There are so many realities that we bring to these conversations, that’s why it isn’t as easy as saying 'do this amount' for every situation.
For example, I understand the pro-model. The pro model is basically the understanding that your club gets the majority of your good hours. Meaning depending on the sport, the athlete is going to spend 10-20 hours a week with that organization, and the majority of training will be done with that organization. So the priority has to be those practices – because performance in those practices will determine the amount of opportunities you get to play in the next game.
Fortunately or unfortunately for my kids – I also bring baggage from high school and from having some really poor coaches at the pro level. As a quarterback in high school – I never learned how to watch film, never learned what defensive coverages were, never gained an ounce of football intelligence. A 12 year old who plays Madden right now has more structural and tactical awareness in football than I did at 16! To be clear, I stopped playing QB because I couldn’t hit the ocean standing on the beach. But it is also true that I was coming from a huge deficit in sporting IQ and technical ability coming into college, because of the lack of preparation in high school.
I look back now, I was so lucky to have Phil Emery and Todd Spencer, my strength coach and position coach, in college – because they were two of those special coaches that can change the lives of their athletes. Without people like that teaching me how to own what you love, things probably would have turned out different.
When I got to the pros – my first year it was stated to me day one that showing up late had consequences, one of which being that my position coach wasn’t going to coach me for that year. He had to focus on getting the starters ready. This was on my first day!
And then, when things went well, you begin to understand that no matter how good each individual hire is for the organization; it is extremely unlikely that they can have the best practice method in place for each individual. Everyone has different requirements for success, and it is highly unlikely a football building in particular, can accommodate the personal required to fully develop 53 men every year.
That’s why we put such an emphasis on development now, and want our athletes to have the tools to create their own opportunities for growth. Within the framework of their team for sure, but understanding that the little adjustments that they make for themselves will make a huge difference over the long term.
This is what I call ownership. And that has been the central them of my messaging as a parent, coach, and mentor.
Others are different – some families want to leave it completely in the hands of the team, because they don’t have a background in the sport, or sports in general. This has incredible consequences good and bad. Those athletes who ‘get it’ early, and have unwavering support from home – do very well when in the right team structure, because they are always ahead of schedule, which breeds confidence, love of competition, positive reinforcement from their coaching staff; all the things we hope for our athletes.
But for those that struggle, or those who aren’t the best on the team early on, or those who don’t have a great coach to give them the attention they need – many of these athletes never learn how to struggle and fight their way through the muck in order to become great. They are missing a little structure maybe, they aren’t getting praise at the right times…this is a tough situation, and I think one that many people understand these days.
If you think about it – youth coaches can be some of the most important people in a young person’s life. But the requirements to become a coach, or the screening process, is just having a heartbeat. Some sports have a better model to follow regarding licensing, but until sports are state-funded this will likely continue to be an issue.
And a third group, that are most of the people I meet – are just awesome, supportive parents who want the best for their kid, and don’t really know what that looks like. And these people come from all different backgrounds, they have different ambitions, different expectations for their athletes. But they just want to support their athletes as much as they can, because they know that athletes will take lessons from the struggle that will last them a lifetime – regardless if they reach their athletic goals or not.
There is a great quote from Roberto Martinez former international soccer player and coach, most recently for Belgium, "When you have a player with the obsession of becoming the best, you’ll never go wrong by supporting that potential." (1)
I think this is what all parents in this category are basing their truth on. The problem of course, is, how many athletes are obsessed with becoming the best, versus how many parents are obsessed with them becoming the best? How many young athletes have that motivation – and how many are being dragged by their parents to put in that work?
That’s the first question we need to ask. I am going to reframe it slightly because I don’t know if an athlete can make that determination until they are late teens, early 20’s. The concept of the best, and what that would entail, is a little broad at the younger ages.
I prefer asking – what is the athlete willing to do now, to become a little better? And is it worth it to them? We can look at models, and different theories and practices around the world. But I think the model could easily be boiled down to: does the athlete want to do more, or do you want to do more?
And I know there’s a psychological factor at play when a younger athlete especially, wants to do more. Maybe they just want to please their parents. So you do have to wade through that part a bit. And that is a larger discussion than this episode can handle.
Walter Jones was a HOF tackle for the Seahawks; best player I ever saw play football. And he said something to me one day that really opened my eyes. He told me everyone has a way to get ready to play. And what might work for me might not work for you. But the problem is, most people never figure out what that way is for them.
If you have an athlete who you have to tear away from the court or field – you don’t want to extinguish that desire. You might have to better define what you consider practice, or prioritize the best things they are doing and cut the rest out. But to take that away could really mess up their heads.
Conversely, there are a ton of very successful players that have a little more balanced lifestyle. These things aren’t written in stone. If your athlete doesn’t want to train – don’t train. If they are tired physically or mentally – take a break.
We talk all the time about giving yourself the opportunity to make choices about your career when you get older. Putting in the time now so that hopefully, if you want to play in college or even in the pros, you are the one making the choices about next steps. Even if the next step is that you are done playing, at least you are making that choice.
The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t put enough into your earlier years, and someone else ends up making decisions for you. Someone else is telling you it’s over. That’s regret. If you had the ability, but didn’t put in the right work; that’s what regret looks like to me.
The subject of workload comes up a lot now, much more so with all of the tracking devices we have to pour through – how much training, playing, exercise, etc. should athletes be doing? Everyone has an answer for this; I know families that have great athletes that don’t do much other than go to team practice. I know families that have dedicated their lives to training – and some of those families prioritize outside training over team training. I know athletes that are in incredible shape, take care of themselves, and can work more without over training. I also know athletes that eat poorly, don’t sleep enough, don’t recover, don’t work out their imbalances…these athletes can over train easily.
The problem is – we as a community drop most everyone into the same group. I used to get this all the time; pro coaches telling me that I was overtraining. Five years after I retired, one of my strength coaches called me up and confided that he finally got me. I wasn’t overtraining. You don’t overtrain, you under-recover. I was eating right, sleeping right, not doing anything outside of training, playing, and hanging with my wife and a couple friends.
No distractions. What we undervalue is how important the mind is. The mind the most important asset we have – and having a plan – having a routine that you can lean on; that is stress removed from the environment.
Sometimes we don’t contextualize how important it is to have your mind aligned with your body. And again I can’t stress this enough – this is not the same for every athlete. Everyone has a way they get ready – sometimes the physical toll of training is underwhelming compared to the value you get mentally from doing what you think is right.
Jerry Rice, Jordan, Kobe, Christiano Ronaldo, Ed Reed – these athletes trained and prepared at a level that went way beyond their club requirements. They are all special – but they aren’t the majority. The majority are getting everything they think they need – and understand that’s not a put down; if you are putting in dedicated time and effort into practice – and you think you are prepared – that’s what matters most.
Bottom line – find what makes you go – and stay the course. Make the adjustments when it’s obvious things aren’t going the way you want. But if you have taken the time to discover what gets you ready – don’t jump off the ship because you hit rough seas. There isn’t a blanket 'less is more' or 'more is better' – there is only what works for that individual. And it’s our job as coaches, parents, and mentors to best understand what is going to turn the dial for each individual.