Friday, February 22, 2013

To Excel in Sports, Don’t Just React—Anticipate

   In most sports, the ability to react quickly in a controlled way is a valuable physical trait. Speed and quickness often trump other physical characteristics such as size and strength. As many coaches are fond of saying, “Speed kills.”

Getting somewhere or to something before your opponent—either through speed, quickness, or a combination of both—provides you with a competitive advantage. With quick reaction time, you can better defend your opponent, get to a ball or location before others, separate yourself from an opponent, and make instinctive physical movements that benefit your play.

But there is another way to get somewhere before others do—one that lies in your head, rather than your body.

Anticipate Events

Instead of relying strictly on your physical skills to respond, you can anticipate an event and begin moving earlier, in the best way, and ahead of an opponent’s action. You can process information more quickly and accurately. Where others miss important clues, you can visualize a ball’s current and future trajectory, read an opponent’s body position and “game”, and recognize time/space relationships of player and ball movements—all of which signal you that a specific event is about to happen. And with this information, you can begin reacting before the event occurs.

Here are some examples of the role anticipation plays in different sports when played at their highest level:

  • Basketball players (when rebounding a ball) know exactly where a missed shot is going, even before the ball hits the rim.

  • Baseball outfielders react immediately after the ball is hit—selecting the direction and rate of speed needed to get to where they expect the ball will eventually land.

  • Tennis players returning a serve evaluate the server’s motion before the ball is hit to determine both the type of serve and targeted location. This information enables players to more quickly reposition themselves, providing more time to play the ball.

  • Hockey players skate to where the puck is going to be—not where it is.

  • Soccer goaltenders instantaneously process key information as players attack the goal—evaluating their movements, relationship to each other, and any other clues that suggest which player will take the shot and what area of the goal they will target. Hope Solo’s diving save against Japan in the 2012 Olympics gold medal match is one example. Protecting the near post, she anticipated the Japanese player’s shot to the far side.

A Learnable Skill

How does one obtain this skill? A few players seemingly have a knack for instinctively anticipating patterns of play. One of the best rebounders in the history of the NBA, Dennis Rodman, was much smaller than most of his opponents. Yet he led the NBA in rebounding for seven straight years, in no small part due to his ability to know where a missed shot would go before others did. For players like Rodman, their uncanny ability is possibly a gift, similar to another player’s natural athleticism. But anyone can improve their ability to recognize patterns of play and anticipate events. It’s a learnable skill.

Like your physical sports skills, this ability is best realized when it becomes a subconscious process. You need to reach the point where you “feel” the patterns of play. You “know” something is about to happen before it does. Your eye and mind pick up subtle clues, recognize patterns, process the possible alternatives, and generate an almost instantaneous response—without using the conscious part of your mind.

Warning: Although anticipation can improve your reaction time, beware failing to act because you anticipate an event that doesn't happen (e.g., an official’s call, the ball going out). Always play hard “to the whistle” and act when in doubt!

Repetition Generates Reflexive Response

As mentioned above, the good news is that your ability to reflexively interpret patterns of play (instead of experiencing a blur of disconnected detail) is learnable. The bad news is that there appear to be few shortcuts to obtaining this ability. You only develop this information processing ability through many hours of play and practice. Analysis and observation can help you recognize possible event triggers (“keys”), but experience is the driving factor in developing the needed real-time recognition and reflexive response.

So if you want to improve your virtual reaction time through anticipation, you need to experience more repetitions. Although you may benefit from specialized drills or simulations, the easiest way to increase repetitions is to simply spend more time playing and practicing your sport (or other sports with similar patterns of play).

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Youth Coaches—Scrimmage with Your Team in Practices

   You can use a number of different methods to teach your players the individual and team skills needed to successfully play their sport. These include group and individual skill demonstrations, short instructional sessions in which you describe a desired behavior, and various drills (both individual and team).

How else can you communicate knowledge to your players?

Get in The Action

If you are in reasonable physical condition and skilled, consider occasionally playing with your kids in practice scrimmages. By doing so, you can interactively teach game situations and skills.

In some practices, you may find your team short a player and unable to field two teams with an equal number of players on each team. This is an opportunity for you to step in and play. Besides balancing the teams, you can demonstrate team skills by example. You can also instruct individuals in real time as game situations occur.

What Are You Trying to Teach?

To begin, first decide on your teaching objectives. Do you want to demonstrate a teamwork principle to the team on which you are playing? Are you looking to help one specific player better understand game situations? Once your objectives are established, and play begins, constantly voice your thoughts on key points as they occur. Also use your hands, when appropriate, to physically push, pull or otherwise initiate an action in another player. By triggering a player’s physical response, you help a player better associate a game situation with a desired, timely behavior.

Demonstrate—Don't Just Lecture!

Use words and actions to demonstrate correct individual and team behavior (i.e., act as a role model). For example, when playing man-to-man defense in basketball, demonstrate how to “talk on defense” by warning your teammates about screens, shouting out instructions, and asking for “help” when needed. In this instance, your actions demonstrate to your teammates the correct way to communicate and play team defense. This “by example” approach is an effective one as it pulls your players into the desired mode of team play. Your in-game demonstration helps your players more easily make a connection in their mind between a given game situation and the appropriate action or reaction.

Instruct as Events Unfold

You also have an opportunity to interactively teach an individual player how to respond to game situations. In a basketball scrimmage, I might choose to defend a taller player who does not yet understand how to play the post position close to the basket. As the player dribbling the ball comes to his side of the court (the right side) and he is “posting me up,” I would say to him, “Get your left hand up—give him a target!” and then put my left hand under his arm and push it up above his head.

As I moved slightly to his right side, I would say, “Put your hip on me—push me—control me with your hip!”

If the ball was reversed to the other side of the court, I would shout, “Move to the other side of the key!” At the same time, I would grab his hips and push him in that direction.

When he got there, I would yell out, “Now post me up!”

This teaching approach is highly effective with beginners. Always look to teach whenever you scrimmage with your players.

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Monday, February 4, 2013

Does Your Child Understand How to Succeed in Sports?

   Success in sports comes in different forms. The most obvious one is derived from your child's ability to play a sport well. He or she wins. The team wins. Everyone wants to play with your son or daughter.

Sounds good, doesn't it. But how does your child become one of these players?

The best players, of course, are usually gifted with “natural” athletic talent. They've got good genes. They typically have physical attributes (size, strength, speed) that set them apart from others. They may also have exceptional motor skills (hand-eye coordination).

Qualities Other Than Natural Talent

But here’s an essential truth you and your child need to understand: natural talent alone does not determine success in sports. Although it often accompanies success, it’s only one ingredient in the mix of qualities that define a winning, competitive athlete. Hard work (practice and preparation) is also necessary to shape one’s talent into effective play. Likewise, good coaching and instruction help transform raw talent into a more refined product. Other more intangible qualities also play an important role. The “will to win”, ability to learn, leadership qualities, and tactical intelligence all help define an athlete’s prospects for success.

Success is Often Relative to Context and Circumstance

You and your child should also appreciate that talent isn't absolute—it grows or shrinks relative to circumstance. In youth, it’s often relative to one’s physical development. Your child may physically mature earlier or later than others his or her age. “Stars” at the youth level may dominate because they are bigger, taller, or stronger. But like runners who charge to the front at the start of a long race, only to quickly fall back into the pack, their advantage is frequently short-lived. No longer tall or strong for their age as they and others mature, their talent (in this case a physical advantage) disappears.

The measure of one’s talent is also relative to the level of competition. Middle school stars who possess outstanding skills may find that this talent alone isn't the path to success when they graduate to high school. Many others may now have similar abilities—ones that were regarded as exceptional at lower levels.

Consider professional athletes. At lower levels, most were exceptionally gifted athletes. But at the elite professional level, many are now viewed as having limited athleticism. Their talent is less remarkable.

The Ability to Adapt

Yet despite their diminished relative ability, many of these professional players still enjoy great success. For example, from 2006 through 2008, a decidedly non-athletic Jason Kapono found success in the NBA because of his ability to make 3-point shots. Tom Brady did not become one of the best quarterbacks of all time because he is a physically great athlete. (His NFL combine results, including a 5.28 40 yard time, were some of the worst ever recorded for a quarterback.) Instead, he adapted his play at the professional level to counter the quicker, faster, and stronger NFL defenders. He learned how to more quickly process patterns of play and make the right decisions.

These players all find other ways to play their sport well; their path to success changes. They may excel in one area of play—possibly one that is crucial to the success of their team. They build upon their experience and countless practice repetitions; their minds have a fuller grasp of how to play the game, enabling them to more quickly take advantage of opportunities that present themselves during a contest. They may also have greater mental discipline to both prepare and persevere. They’re better conditioned. They work and play harder. Their will to win is strong.

Help Your Child Find His or Her Unique Path

If your child wants to play competitive sports, his or her path to success will likely resemble the one just described. Few athletes consistently win throughout their career by relying on their athletic talent alone. Instead, hard work and the other qualities described above come into play. And this is good news for your child and every young athlete. He or she can develop and control many of these other qualities. Make sure that you communicate this message to your child.

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)