Last week, I attended the USOC/NFHS sponsored National Coaches Conference in Indianapolis. One of the hot topics was Long Term Athlete Development, as there were no fewer than three presentations on the topic, including the keynote address.
The initial presentation on the topic featured a professor of sports management and a director of coaching from one of the national governing bodies. Their convoluted talk essentially suggested a proposal for re-organizing the governing bodies of sport in the United States, as there are so many different interests.
In basketball, for instance, you have AAU, NFHS, NCAA, NBA, USA Basketball, YMCA, and others. According to Mark Cuban in an article about the NBA’s proposed World Cup of Basketball:
“I do know that USA Basketball should have no say in the matter,” Cuban said. “It’s completely separate from the NBA. They are a different financial entity. They would just be another country that could play in our tournament. Just like FIFA does the World Cup, the NBA could do a global tournament.
“There’s no more reason to deal with USA Basketball than there is to work with the Peruvian Basketball or Kazakhstan Basketball Committee.”
When there is that type of cooperation between the entities involved with developing the future of the game, there certainly needs to be some sort of re-organization (Of course, USA Basketball was completely unrepresented at the USOC conference).
While I have often been a critic of the NGBs, and especially USA Basketball, the presentation used failed logic to support its claims. The presenters showed two graphics to suggest that the U.S. has fallen behind in its sports dominance, and one presenter took almost a xenophobic stance on national sports dominance.
One slide showed that the U.S. ranked relatively low in medals at the Beijing Olympics when considered on a per capita basis, and another showed the U.S. ranking relatively low in medals based on national GDP. The assumption is that a bigger population should produce more medals – India would provide a counterexample to that argument – and richer countries should produce more medals.
While this has some merit, there are three primary flaws with this argument.
1. No slide showed the amount of government financial support for sports development. More than population or GDP, the amount of resources the government devotes to sporting excellence would be a key indicator of Olympic success. China has hundreds of sports schools to develop its aspiring Olympians. Isn’t that a truer sign of a country’s commitment to sporting success than a large population?
2. Looking strictly at medal totals emphasizes the success of individual sports. The U.S. is an unquestioned power in basketball. However, it can win only two medals in basketball at the Olympics. Cuba is a power in boxing. Cuba could win 12 medals in boxing. If Cuba dominated one sport and won 12 golds in boxing, and the U.S. dominated one sport and won two golds in basketball, Cuba would appear to be much more impressive. However, each dominated the same number of sports (1). What if basketball added 1v1, 3v3, and slam dunk competitions and the U.S. was able to enter three competitors in each? If Cuba wins 10-12 medals in boxing, with its smaller population and GDP, it would appear to be a much greater sporting nation than the U.S. However, is that the truth?
While the U.S benefits from numerous available medals in swimming and track & field, numerous other sports with multiple weight classes, like weightlifting, tend to be dominated by smaller, poorer countries.
3. Due to college-scholarship availability and potential professional careers, non-Olympic sports tend to dominate high-school participation. According to the 2011 NFHS surveys, the most popular boys’ sport in high schools, with twice as many participants as any other sport, is football. There is no football in the Olympics. Golf is the 9th most popular sport for boys with no Olympic competition.
For girls, softball (4), competitive spirit squads (9), and lacrosse (10) are in the top 10 in participation, yet none is an Olympic sport.
After football, the next three most popular boys’ sports are track & field, basketball, and baseball. There is a good chance that the U.S. will medal in baseball and basketball, and T&F should be near the top of the medal count in T&F.
The four most popular sports for females outside softball are track & field, basketball, volleyball, and soccer. The U.S. is likely to medal in basketball, volleyball, and soccer, and the U.S. should be near or at the top of the medal count in T&F.
Therefore, in the sports in which the U.S. favors and competes with the most numbers, the U.S. is successful.
If winning medals is the goal of sports participation, as was the philosophy espoused by the presentation, what changes should be made? Here are three ideas:
First, since the talk flirted with the LTAD idea, the U.S. could implement greater talent identification programs. However, how would this work? If a rowing coach identified a basketball player as a potential Olympic rower, should U.S. Rowing be allowed to entice or force the basketball player into a junior rowing program? If a USA Weightlifting coach identified an offensive lineman as a potential Olympic weightlifter, should USA Weightlifting be allowed to pull him out of football and into a weightlifting program? If a basketball player forfeited a potential basketball scholarship to row or a football player forfeited a potential football scholarship for weightlifting, who should fund his education and his training? For an individual, is a potential Olympic experience worth sacrificing a free education and maybe even a professional career with salaries in the millions?
Second, while high schools and universities engage in an arms race of facility upgrades and improvements, these upgrades could be focused more around performance as opposed to wowing recruits with unnecessary amenities. Imagine if universities spent their budgets on sports-science tools like in the video below as opposed to furnishing lockers with plush leather couches and personalized flat-screen televisions. An emphasis on technology and sports science could elevate the performance of those near-elite performers in U.S. universities. Instead, in my experience, university sports science researchers and the athletic departments are separate entities with virtually no interaction or cross pollination of ideas. Why should it require a Red Bull sponsorship for an aspiring Olympic athlete to have access to these tools?
Third, if the nation is concerned about a relatively poor performance in medals when viewed by population or GDP, why not encourage or force the NCAA to promote Olympic sports ahead of non-Olympic sports? The NCAA appears to be the primary vehicle for sports development in the post-adolescent stage. When a university adds a new sport, why not add field hockey instead of lacrosse? Field hockey is an Olympic sport, while lacrosse is not. What about encouraging universities to start men’s water polo, volleyball, rowing, and wrestling programs instead of golf? What about boxing, judo, weightlifting, table tennis, badminton, and other individual sports that have little to no competitive outlets within the high school or college system? If we as a nation care about our overall performance, shouldn’t we provide similar access to opportunities for these athletes as we do for football, basketball, soccer, and other sports?
The alternative, of course, is to realize that Olympic medal counts are not the way that we should measure success in sports because the vast majority of participants will never compete in an Olympic Games. When I wrote Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, I was not reacting to USA Basketball’s struggles in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Olympics, but problems at the grassroots level, many of which were depicted in George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out.
If we focus all our money and attention on producing the few Olympians, what happens to the majority of the population? Aren’t concerns about health and obesity more important than winning an extra medal or two in sports that nobody pays attention to except for during the Olympic games? What about ensuring a positive experience for all young children beginning their sports participation?
Maybe the answer to both questions is the same. Maybe, if we create more and better programs and access in all Olympic sports, we will encourage more children to find something of interest and maintain physical activity. Of course, with budget cuts destroying physical education and limiting after-school sports, where does the funding for additional sporting opportunities, teams, coaches, facilities, and training come from?
When an organization like the NBA feels no responsibility to assist USA Basketball with the development of the game, despite the billions of profits, how does a small organization like USA Judo or USA Rowing, without the television revenue, provide more access and support for local programs or increasing school programs?
There are problems with sports development in the U.S. However, reshuffling organizations into different boxes, as was proposed, is not the answer, just as measuring medal counts by GDP is not the evidence of issues at the grassroots levels. A focus on medal counts may create an even more elitist system of sports development by focusing resources on the few, rather than the masses. However, an effort to increase opportunities to the masses may lead to a greater talent pool and the potential for more varied talents to develop.