There was a long feature piece in the NY Times Magazine section two weeks ago by sportswriter Michael Sokolove in which he focused on the Ajax soccer club in The Netherlands. Basically, the piece zeroed in on how the Dutch go about finding very young talented soccer players (as young as age 5) and how they develop their skills.
The takeaway was interesting in that the Dutch only have the kids practice at Ajax three days a week, and then play only one game on the weekend. That’s it, until they’re 14 or 15. Here, of course, we start our kids on travel teams as early as possible, but unlike the Dutch, we have our kids play pretty much all week and then play in two-three games ove the weekend. In the US, the emphasis is on winning – even at a young age. The Dutch and other European models are all about skill development. Winning, they insist, comes at a later age.
So the question is — are we missing the boat when it comes to developing our young athletes? Maybe we should be emphasizing not only skill development – but just as importantly, not being so eager to cut kids at ages 8 or 10 or 12. It’s essential to recognize that kids often develop as “late bloomers” in their teenage years, but of course, if they’ve been cut from their travel team, there’s really no incentive for them to continue on. And that’s a shame.
Consider the case of Danny Nava. Here’s a kid who was a good, but not great, baseball player in HS. He tried out as a walk-on at the Univ. of Santa Clara, only to be cut. He left Santa Clara, and enrolled at a local junior college where he did well. He ultimately came back to Santa Clara, and played well his senior year. Unfortunately, he wasn’t drafted by any pro team, so he tried out and made a local independent team in Chico, CA. In 2007, Nava had a great year and was named MVP of the Golden Baseball League. The Red Sox noticed, and signed him as a free agent. And then, last weekend, he got called up to the big leagues, and in his first at-bat — on the very first pitch he saw in the majors – he hit a grand slam home run!
In short, another case of a kid pursuing his dream against all odds. And that’s the beauty of sports.