The Path to Mastery: Part 3
Posted by: Hollis Lyman | University of Denver Sports Psychology
Development Levels & Guiding a Mastery Path
This final installment, on the Path to Mastery, will cover development stages of athletes and how it impacts their path identity, how to guide athletes in different age groups, and what the paths look like for a coach. Let’s review the paths quickly, and as a reminder, no path is “wrong” — all paths can be functional.
- Dabblers tend to participate in multiple activities with multiple priorities and loyalties.
- Obsessives tend to push themselves beyond their limits in pursuit of performance gains.
- Hackers tend to join activities for alternate reasons (like friends on the team) and, while they may be athletically inclined, they are not highly invested in performance outcomes.
- Masters are dedicated to a long-term path of plateaus and sharp performance gains while recovering properly and being highly invested in few activities.
Is it ever too early to start developing a mastery path for your athletes? Is an athlete ever too young? As sport develops life skills as well as athletic skills, it is never too early if the athlete is being met at their development level. Let’s look at what the four paths look like at different ages, and how to move towards the Path to Mastery at each developmental age.
Young athletes from the ages of 3 to 5 are learning to share, find friends more interesting than adults, need clear and consistent rules, need encouragement to express themselves with words, and are beginning to develop empathy. When coaching this age group, most kids are naturally on a Dabbler or Hacker path. They are engaged in many activities, are constantly learning new things, and are interested in becoming friends with their teammates. Parents can begin to influence their athlete’s future path by directing them too early. Athletes at this age group need to create their own buy in, their own connections, and work to develop motor skills for soccer.
Coaches: Encourage your players with play, positive feedback, and time to get to know their teammates. Help your athletes learn to love soccer the way you do.
Athletes between 6 and 8 years old are beginning to understand consequences, help others when they are upset, are more competent in sharing, can play alone but prefer to be with friends, and highly value praise. Athletes in this age group can begin to show signs of an Obsessive path. Quite often, this path is influenced by an extrinsic (or outside) force such as parents, their favorite soccer player on TV, or even their coach. Athletes who are unduly hard on themselves and do not connect well with their teammates may be inclined towards the Obsessive path.
Coaches: As your athletes begin to develop more finely tuned motor skills, they are developing emotional and athletic mind skills in conjunction. At this early age, it is apt to encourage proper rest, body awareness, and praise for hard work on and off the field. Athletes will also gain value from practicing their skills at home with family, siblings, or friends.
A distinct change in attention length, problem solving capacity, leadership development, and ability to remember and replicate sequences occurs between ages 9 and 11. Athletes at this age start sculpting the future athlete they will be. Here, athletes on individual paths may be influenced by a multitude of factors including friends, parental pressures, inspirational soccer players, a favorite coach, a winning season, and changes in the developing brain. It could be said, broadly, that at this age athletes are most susceptible to outside influence as to which path they are on.
Coaches: These athletes are developing life skills directly on the field at your practice. By encouraging leadership development and solo problem solving you not only encourage athletes to harness their soccer identity, but you also encourage them to value soccer beyond foot work skills. The higher an athlete values soccer, the more influence you have in guiding them to master their sport with patience and deliberate effort.
Ages 12 to 14 can be a semi-volatile time in an individual’s life. As an athlete develops their identity, seeks more responsibility, and develops stronger notions of “right” and “wrong”, they also experience hormone changes, body development, and are heavily influenced by friends. In addition, they experience wider ranges of emotion. Soccer can be an outlet and/or a coping mechanism for emotions as well as support their self-discovery with teammates they view as friends.
Coaches: As skill levels begin to reveal themselves and athletes change teams, it will be important to incorporate new players quickly. Helping them feel that they are among friends and a coach they connect with, will encourage them to work through this potentially confusing time by engaging in soccer even more. Continue to encourage proper rest, train and re-train motor skills as athletes grow, and begin to encourage a long-term understanding of injury, athletic performance, and soccer in their lives.
Lastly, this wide range of ages 15 to 18 years old comes with wide ranges of development seen in athletes. In general, much of this age range is impacted by hormonal development—athletes go through a stage of feeling invincible and are becoming more self-aware, spending more time with friends, and begin committing to one or two sports, specifically pledging allegiance to a team. This age range’s paths may be more influenced internally than any other stage. External forces who have the athletes’ loyalty and respect may be able to sway them in their path, but far less so than before. Athletes are prone to walking their path more expressively than ages before. Dabblers become apparent and often do not return from season to season, as they are testing out other aspects of their identity. Hackers tend to follow their friends onto specific teams, out of the sport, or even increase commitment and change paths with success and friend influence. Obsessive athletes are at a very high injury risk during this age group. They are undergoing bodily changes and essentially training in new bodies. Not allowing athletes to sleep and rest at this age increases motor mistakes and cognitive fatigue leading to poor mood and more skill mistakes.
Coaches: Identify which paths your athletes are on and what influence you have with each of them. If someone has more influence than you might on an athlete, enlist their skills in supporting that athlete. Acknowledge the changes they may be undergoing and know that occasionally your role as coach may change.
Children With Special Needs
The above age groups are generically grouped by expected mental, physical, social, and emotional development stages. Many kids are not on the same track as their peers for a variety of reasons. If you have an athlete who is behind, ahead, or seemingly not following these development stages in order—you are not alone—and they can also follow one of the four paths.
Coaches: If you have athletes with special needs, you will need to pay more attention to each individual and their needs. Enlist parent insight on their athletes and increase the athletes’ autonomy by asking them to set goals for themselves and to share what soccer means to them. By better understanding an athlete’s intentions of being on your team, you can better push them to excel in their performance on the Path to Mastery.
The Path of the Coach
What about the coach? What does a coach on the Path of Mastery look like? Let’s take a look at each path, briefly, through a coaching lens.
- The Dabbler coach may coach multiple sports, engage in multiple sports themselves, and value the life skill development along with the sport specific development of soccer. Often these coaches have a wide knowledge base of motor development, movement patterns, or other tangential important factors to athletic development.
- The Hacker coach may start coaching out of opportunity and familiarity with sport. These coaches are often fans of professional soccer though they may not have competed competitively. Skill development can be weak with these coaches if they do not spend the time to educate themselves beyond the rules of the game.
- The Obsessive coach is often the coach we think of when we think of the coach who made us run, yelled during games and practice, and pushed us to our limits. These coaches are highly passionate, demand excellence, and may undervalue recovery. This is true not only for their athletes, but also for themselves.
- The Master coach is continually engaged in educating themselves on soccer and athletic-specific development. They encourage their athletes to work hard, rest hard, and are demanding of excellence. Master coaches also use their resources around them to better their athletes’ experience, including collaborating with physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, mental performance coaches, and goalie coaches. A team like this allows a Master coach to focus on becoming the expert coach on their team and their individuals.
Ultimately, no path is wrong. No age group is the perfect group to become masters. What is important, and is specific, is that the Path of Mastery is patient and long-term. An athlete on a different path may merely be an indicator that the athlete is on a plateau in their eventual mastery path! Guiding ourselves towards mastery influences others around us to follow suit. Encouraging your athletes towards mastery helps them escape the narrow window they often view their one season with. A soccer career is, hopefully, a lifetime of seasons that build on one another.
Coaches: Take care of yourselves and, as you approach your skill as a long-term endeavor, your athletes will also excel.