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USOC Report: The Formula for Developing Elite Athletes

December 11, 2014    24247 Views

By TJ Buchanan | @USLTJBuchanan

USOC Report: The Formula for Developing Elite Athletes

When developing your players for maximum performance, what really pushes them to an elite level?

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) recently published a report based on a survey distributed to nearly 2,000 U.S. Olympic athletes. The survey intended to gauge what the USOC could do to improve the quality and effectiveness of programs focused on talent identification and development.

What do the Olympics have to do with your team of players you don’t choose and whose motivation varies? This information can help coaches of any sport and any age group guide their teams to success.

According to the USOC report, the top two reasons Olympic athletes gave for pursuing elite levels of performance were “intrinsic love of activity” (they liked being active) and love of the sport. What does that tell me as a coach? It’s my job to get my players to love being active and to love lacrosse.

It’s my job to make it fun.

Format your practices so that the mindset of the athletes becomes, “I want to go to practice,” as opposed to the all-too-often-heard, “I have to go to practice.” Get your players addicted to lacrosse. Implement drills with a fast pace, high touch counts and opportunities for frequent participation.

Another factor contributing to the desire to achieve at the highest level, according to the USOC report, was multi-sport athleticism. College lacrosse coaches almost universally prefer athletes who play multiple sports in high school. The data collected by the USOC reinforces that preference. Most Olympians did not specialize in their sport until very late in their development. Even then, some continued to participate in other sports.

It is downright painful to hear a 9-year-old say he or she solely plays lacrosse year-round, switching between teams based on the season. Research shows the best athletes in the world participated in at least two sports through high school. Ninety-seven percent of USOC respondents who followed that path credited multi-sport participation directly for their success.

If you ask your players to commit to lacrosse full time, you are holding them back and limiting their upside.

In his book, “Outliers,” Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. We might be tempted to interpret this to mean we must constantly practice one thing to become excellent at it. But would you want an athlete who 10,000 hours playing wall ball or one who divided 10,000 hours between basketball, hockey and lacrosse?

We can teach kids to catch and throw. Some say we can’t teach them to be athletes. I refute that. If we encourage and expect multi-sport participation, we indirectly teach them to be athletes.

The Path to Excellence

The USOC surveyed more than 300 athletes who competed in one or more Olympics between 2000 and 2012 to identify the factors and circumstances surrounding their success.

Factors Influencing Sport Decision (1-5 Scale)

Intrinsic love of activity – 4.32
Love of sport – 4.309
Early success – 3.583
Parental influence – 3.489
Coaches recruitment – 3.400
Peer recruitment – 2.805
Sibling recruitment – 2.557
PE teacher influence – 2.299

Implication

Coaches that can infuse competition with athlete-centric success and fun will set up athletes for a great experience.

Average Number of Sports Played

Age U10 – 3.11
Age 10-14 – 2.99
Age 15-18 – 2.2
Age 19-22 – 1.27
Age 22-older – 1.31

Implication

The findings indicate that Olympians were involved in an average of three sports per year until age 14, which belies the notion that early specialization is critical to long-term success. Multi-sport play appeared to be beneficial to these Olympians.

Over to you. How would you identify the factors that influence your lacrosse player’s sport decision? Is it one or more of the eight above, or something else? Let us know in the comments section.

TJ Buchanan is the coaching education content manager at US Lacrosse.

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