“What do I need to do to play more on this team?”

Youth sports coaches often field a question of this sort from their players.  In fact, many organizations advocating for youth sports encourage athletes to instigate just this type of conversation.  It’s well-meaning and, it seems, a valuable part of the learning experience for children.  But the question often renders itself nearly impossible to answer.  As is often the case, it just may be the wrong question to start with.

Imagine a goalie asking this of his coach, eliciting the obvious answer, “Allow fewer goals than you currently do,” or, if competing for playing time, “Allow fewer than our other goalie.”  But, clearly, the question is deeper than that: “How do I allow fewer goals?”  In a sense, “How do I be a better goalie than him?”  Putting the question this way helps highlight the issue with the question itself.

It’s actually an easier question to answer with goalies because their job is relatively cut and dried: keep the ball out of the goal.  And yet, the position is amazingly nuanced.  Goalies prevent goals in myriad ways: by arranging their defense strategically, through positioning which forces shooters to miss the goal or forgo shots all together, by disguising their body position to fool ensuing shooters, how they distribute the ball, and many more, not to mention the obvious: read the shooter and react to the shot by getting to it before it reaches the goal.

There has been fascinating research tracking eye movements of athletes reacting to high-speed objects such as ice hockey goalies and tennis players.  The top athletes, it turns out, focus less on the ball or puck. Instead, their eyes pick up cues from their opponent: in the case of the goalie, cues such as the angle of the stick blade, the shooter’s shoulder and hip position, and various others which allow the goalie to more successfully predict where the shot will go.

This can be taught, to some degree.  But, in large part, this is only something an athlete develops over time, and is a skill some humans just do better than others.

The question becomes even trickier with non-goalies as these positions involve greater subtlety.  Imagine answering the soccer player’s question with, “You need to ‘create space’ better.”  Creating space is a key element of good soccer but, at some point, it becomes a bit of an issue in which you either have it or you don’t.  To some extent it’s instinctual.  It’s similar to telling a basketball point guard to have “better vision” of the court—having better vision and creating better space just makes one player better than another, not to mention the more obvious innate physical and athletic differences.


To extricate momentarily from the sporting mindset, I often imagine myself as the parent of a child pursuing ballet, something I know very little about.  I can envision her wanting to make the “Starting Team” of her ballet school but always falling short.  I would watch her along with the Starting Team and think, “But they all stand on point for three seconds at a time.  They all twirl around and land seamlessly in third position and have similar vertical leaps.”

Clearly, though, I’d be missing something.  In a sense, I’d be missing everything.  Were my child to ask her teacher what she needed to do to advance ahead of her peers to the Starting Team, it’s hard to envision a helpful answer.  “Be a better ballerina,” would be the real answer.  The nuanced and more correct answer would involve countless subtleties: the bend of the elbow, degree of hip flex, tension in the torso, flutter of the fingers, etc.  And, yet, this is exactly where ballerinas differentiate themselves.  As all of them approach the purported 10,000 hours of focusedtraining needed to acquire expertise, some just do these things better than others.  If they didn’t then they’d all be the same: all on the Starting Team.

Those who become experts, such as coaches, recognize things others don’t.  Malcolm Gladwell explores this in his bestselling book, “Blink.”  In it, he explains how we all utilize “thin slicing” in which we gather mounds of information in the blink of an eye and use that to formulate conclusions about our world.  All done unconsciously.

He writes of tennis coaching legend, Vic Braden, who could predict with near-perfect accuracy whether a tennis serve would land fairly before the player struck the ball.  Yet, despite this high level of expertise, Braden couldn’t explain what, exactly, he was looking at.  Serving a tennis ball accurately and powerfully involves implementing a certain set of base fundamentals, just as the goalie and ballerina noted above.  All of the top players do this, but the better players have a certain something—Braden doesn’t know what—which makes them better than others.

1988 Olympic gold medal figure skater, Brian Boitano, said something similar in conversation about this topic.  Boitano noted that he and other experts in his cohort can tell nearly everything about the skill level of a skater after watching them for three to five seconds.  He can accurately predict the age the skater started, his level of proficiency, and even whether he will “stick” an upcoming jump 10 seconds prior to it.  Experts just see things that we—athletes, parents, fans—don’t.  That’s part of what makes them experts.

Certainly, through proper training and a growth mindset—that we view people as not firmly locked in to a specific, fixed situation—athletes can make improvements.  Educators are starting to recognize this difference in mindset now more than ever.  It should be no surprise to hear that studies demonstrate how important a growth mindset is for teachers to maintain.  If your teacher believes the student is fixed—that he just can’t do algebra—then it’s likely the struggling student won’t succeed in algebra class.  Likewise with the athlete.

This goes back to the 1970’s experiment in which an elementary teacher announced to her class that blue-eyed students were smarter.  Math and spelling exams then demonstrated marked improvement by blue-eyed children and diminished performance by children with brown eyes.  The following day, she announced she had erred: brown-eyed children were smarter.  Exams then showed improvement by children with brown eyes and diminished performance by blue-eyed children.  Just their teacher’s exhibiting a fixed mindset resulted in drastic effects on students and their ability to learn.

A close friend and expert educator explains it like this: We all realize some aspect of nature determines one’s ability to perform, but we also know some aspect of nurture does as well.  It’s not important to pin down the exact role each plays.  Once we recognize the influence of nurture, this allows a growth mindset to play a genuine role in an educator’s approach to teaching.  And even if you think a child may not be able to accomplish a given task, the teacher needs to behave as though she does to even give the student a chance.

And so, for example, every algebra student should be treated as though they can master algebra.  If they fail, it’s the job of the educator to determine what went wrong and help them.  The idea being: every student can master algebra.

But the analogy of algebra student to athlete doesn’t quite work.  All students can master algebra and, consequently, earn A’s in Algebra class.  And while all athletes can master a sport, not all athletes can earn the position of starter on a basketball team.  Not all can be MVP of the league.  Not all can go on to play in college.  To make the analogy apt, not every student in the Algebra class can earn “Top Algebra Student.”

If an athlete’s goal is to be better than some other athlete and that other athlete has the same goal, then one of them will fail.  But if the goal is to master the sport and to be the very best you can be, then they can both succeed, and likely will succeed with proper motivation, a growth-mindset oriented coach, and the determination to do so.  More importantly, this later form of focus allows one to control the things they can control—i.e. themselves—and not focus on things out of their control—i.e. other players.

A second disanalogy between classroom and sports field is best explained by Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer in his book “The Borderlands of Science.”  In a chapter entitled, “Blood or Sweat?: The Nature-Nurture Debate in Sports,” he recalls being interviewed by an ABC reporter who asked him to reflect on the dismay of finishing third in a transcontinental bicycle race.  He responded, “I should have picked better parents.”  He referenced his reaching the “upper ceiling of my physical nature” and, because of this, there just being nothing more he could have done in order to outperform the two other cyclists.  In doing so, he cited various studies which demonstrate the major role genetic pre-disposition plays in the variance of athletes.

Recognition of the I-know-not-what approach along with the focus on being your best in the face of genetic determination can actually take the pressure off of us just a bit.  Instead, we can, and should, focus more on process then on external issues such as being better than another player.  I can never be a better basketball player than Steph Curry, but I can be the best basketball player I can be, if I make the commitment and decision to do so.

And so players can worry less and, instead, put all of their energies into arriving at training focused and truly prepared—mentally and physically—to improve both their fundamentals and their game-situation play.  This sort of focus, it often seems, is the difference between two athletes of similar natural athletic ability: the one athlete can apply himself more intently on fundamentals and is more willing to work through the pain and discomfort of conditioning.

Parents can worry less—less about their child’s coach and less about their child’s play—and enjoy the process and growth of their own child’s personal trajectory.  It’s important to remember not only that coaches are, ideally, experts in the respective sport but, more importantly, these coaches see the athletes play ninety percent more of their sport than the parents: in training and practice.

Coaches, maybe most importantly, can recognize the direct roll they play in determining whether their athletes achieve this ultimate goal of being their best.  They can realize that, amidst the massive genetic variance, there is a real need for good educating, for motivating, and for maintaining a growth mindset.  A player of mine who graduated last year, Erik, said to me in response to a conversation about this article, “I am so grateful for learning from you how much harder I could really push myself in all areas of life.”  Erik was not a starter on our team but achieved the goal of being his best and, clearly, much more.  This, in and of itself, should be motivation enough for a youth coach regardless of results in the win/loss column.

And all of us can recognize there’s a little bit of magic going on every time we watch a sporting contest.  That, despite our own expertise in any given sport—or, maybe because of it—we are seeing things that we’re not actually seeing.  We’re celebrating acts and stretches of the human condition that we not only know not what but, likely, cannot know.  And this is okay.  It’s good, even.  It’s another part of the beauty of the sporting experience.1

1I am grateful to all those who discussed this issue with me over the past month, helping me to formulate my views on the topic, sharing insights, and challenging my approach: Josh Maisel, Matt Bowen, John Bowen, Brian Boitano, Erik Luxenburg, Jessica Bowen, Bryan Pate, and the Menlo Boys Varsity Water Polo Team.