Modeling Youth Leagues on Video Games

I saw an interesting article about education and video games titled “A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool,” and the same concepts apply to coaching. People seem concerned about lazy children or disinterested children and blame video games. However, video games are designed to motivate and engage children. Our question should be why sports are not doing the same.

A friend emailed me about the state of girls’ basketball in Los Angeles. Programs at high schools with 3000 students cannot find enough players to field junior varsity teams. These are formerly good programs, including one who produced a recent D2 All-American and another smaller private school with at least two alumni playing D1 basketball. How is this possible?

[Video] games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.

Is this how we organize sports? Do we insert players into an achievable challenge level? Generally, youth leagues are determined by age. Club teams and school teams generally select teams based on a combination of age, size and skill, but those players who do not make the team are cut. There is no avenue for a player cut from his school team – a sophomore cut from the junior varsity cannot return to the freshman level because of age.

Youth leagues are plagued by talent discrepancies because of the dependence on age, and the differences in physical maturity of children of the same age, not to mention experience and skill levels. Theoretically, a league of 10-year-olds should be fairly even. However, what if some children started as 8-year-olds? What if some 10-year-olds are 4-5 inches taller than some other 10-year-olds? What if an 11-year-old plays in the league because of a grade holdback or a 9-year-old plays up for the greater competitive level? Soon, a league filled with players of the same age has great talent, experience and physical maturity levels.

What if leagues developed a less competitive developmental approach prior to a competitive league season? An NJB organization in the Bay Area used the Playmakers Basketball Development League as an introductory league for players joining the NJB. Rather than go straight into a competitive 5v5 season with returning players, they had the opportunity to gain experience and coaching in a 6-week development league during the fall prior to the winter competitive season. This inserted the players at an appropriate challenge level and gave them some small goals to accomplish before the regular season. Beyond the preparation, this creates a pleasurable experience for the players because they are not overwhelmed by the experienced players in their initial foray into basketball, and their effort and practice can be rewarded, fueling their motivation to continue.

Martial arts use the video game approach. Students enter into a rank system based on experience and demonstrated skill level and progress to more advanced classes based on their demonstrated skills and improvement of learned skills. During competitions, martial artists are divided based on age (in some cases), weight class and skill ranking (black belts vs. black belts). Is it any wonder that more children are turning away from sports like baseball and basketball to do jiujitsu?

Coaches dislike the AAU system because it de-values competition, as players always have another game to play. However, in video games, there are always do-overs or new lives. This does not mean that the video-game player is uncompetitive; however, he is fueled by the process of attaining mastery in the game, not just winning, which is the mindset many coaches advocate.

Video games are attractive because they are fun and motivating. It is easy to see one’s progress because of the levels, and there is always a challenge awaiting the gamer. Can we say the same about youth basketball leagues? Are there rewards for skill development? Does anyone really notice a player’s marked improvement as a shooter or ball handler? Are the games always challenging? Are the practices? Are the drills? If a player shows up to practice and does the same drill every day, is that motivating?

I know a college coach who has been doing stationary passing drills in practice for a month during the off-season. The team does the same drill every practice. There is no progression. There is no new challenge. Does that make a player better? Does that motivate the player to reach new levels of performance?

The 180 Shooter Practice Tracker program is designed around this idea with corresponding t-shirts to represent the levels of shooting progression. Each level is identified by different facets of successful shooting that correspond to the five levels in 180 Shooter. The idea is that as players improve and reach a new level, they earn the right to wear a different colored t-shirt based on their successful progression from a stationary form shooter to a catch-and-shoot on the move shooter, as an example. The program’s goal is to create incentives for players to track their shooting progress, as I believe the tracking will enhance their shooting development through more deliberate practice as opposed to just shooting around.

To earn a new belt in martial arts, you have to demonstrate certain skills and improve the execution of previously learned skills. To progress in the 180 Shooter program, you have to demonstrate certain skills. It’s the video-game approach of inserting the player at an appropriate challenge level and rewarding effort and practice with new challenges and a symbolic reward, whether a belt, t-shirt or new level of a video game.

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