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Can Youth Sports Foster Creativity?

Check out an article we wrote for The Conversation about the relationship between youth sports and creativity.

Hook & Ladder Goes to China

Over this past fall, Hook & Ladder had some exciting opportunities to share our sport development knowledge and experience with an international audience. While we really enjoyed some of the smaller-scale projects, like working with the South Korean equivalent of PBS on a documentary profiling emerging sports – they were particularly interested in talking about our University of Texas Quidditch team and the roller derby revival here in Austin – our biggest event of the fall was being invited to be the lone representative for the United States at a global sport development workshop held in Beijing, China.

The event was hosted by the Capital University of Physical Education and Sports (CUPES) and included high-ranking government officials from the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC) as well as directors of national sport federations. The purpose of bringing all these high-ranking officials together with global experts in sport development was to promote an exchange of ideas between a handful of select countries about best practices for developing athletes at both the grassroots and elite levels.

Although Tolga couldn’t make the trip, Matt represented Hook & Ladder and the USA on his behalf – and both wrote a book chapter together in conjunction with the event.

We’ve included some photos from the trip below. Enjoy!

Matt meeting the President of Capital University of Physical Education and Sports prior to the beginning of the workshop

Matt sitting between the delegate from Canada (Dr. Tony Church) and the head of the Chinese soccer federation

Presenting on the United States’ approach to sport development relative to that of other countries

Another presentation given later in the day


A shot of Matt’s Chinese nameplate during a Q&A session with the government officials

A group photo of all the workshop participants, including the university hosts, the GASC and NSF officials, and the international delegates

Matt even had the opportunity to teach a class at CUPES while he was at the university

Matt got to spend one afternoon working with the founder and president of the largest grassroots soccer club in Beijing

On the last day in Beijing, Matt was taken to the Olympic village from the 2008 games – here’s a picture of the Bird’s Nest

Squeezed in a trip to the Great Wall prior to heading back to Austin



Pick-Up Sports: A Vital Part of Athlete Development


If you are like me, you grew up playing sports with the kids in your neighborhood. The free time to meet up with my friends at the park or the court after school was the highlight of my day, and looking back, served to teach me a lot about who I am today. As a professor and consultant specializing in the the development of youth athletes, I have spent the last decade studying youth sports and working with youth sports organizations to help them more effectively generate the outcomes they seek for their child participants. One of the most disturbing trends I have noticed over this period is the diminishment in unstructured, adult-free pick-up sports as a part of a child’s athletic routine. As parents strive to give their children access to the opportunities they never had, less structured experiences like pick-up sports seem to have become viewed as unsafe and unproductive.

Well, as a sport scientist, I am pleased to report that the emerging research into the impacts of playing sports in unstructured settings  is demonstrating very clear – and very positive – results for those kids who are given the opportunity to play without the typical structure and supervision of organized sports. Far from a waste of time or energy, pick-up sports can offer children a forum within which they can develop skills and abilities that are more difficult to foster in organized settings. In a study slated for publication in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Sport Management this Fall, a colleague and I present the results of a study on youth sport participation settings that illustrate the way that playing sports in unstructured and organized settings actually complements the development of healthy attitudes about sport participation and creates opportunities for differential skill development. In another study currently in review at the Creativity Research Journal, my colleagues and I report the intriguing results of a study that found that adults who spent more time in unstructured sports settings as children are significantly more creative as adults. And these studies are just a few of the increasing number of studies that cite the benefits of playing pick-up for kids. Whether it is developing creativity, decision-making, emotional and social intelligence, or a host of other positive outcomes, pick-up sports are re-emerging as a viable developmental context for youth athletes. In fact, some of the youth sports organizations we have recently been brought in to consult for have seen appreciable developmental increases in their athletes by incorporating our advice to make pick-up a part of their athlete training.

If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of pick-up sports, or would like to discuss how we can help your organization develop some more unstructured participation opportunities for your athletes, we’d love to talk with you.

What if We Didn’t Treat All-Stars like a Rare, Finite Resource?


It’s a question we almost never ask, so let me explain. If you’ve been around youth sports in any capacity, you know how critical it seems to the success of a team to get its hands on “the good kid.” At the beginning of every youth season, we see the frenzy that comes along with trying to get that “stud” on your team: parents and coaches rigging player allocation drafts and/or gaming the system by adding the parent of another “good kid” as an assistant so that the children have to be on a particular team together. As long as we’ve had youth sports, we have had adults scrambling to get those special talents on their team. And who could blame them? At the youth level, the difference in ability between the good players and the not-so-good players is about as drastic as it will ever be, so snatching up any outstanding performers is likely to pay big dividends in the ol’ win-loss column. In a competitive setting, it is human nature to try to hoard the best things for yourself, and this is largely how sports operate when it comes to high-performing athletes. I mean, if the Dallas Cowboys didn’t look out for themselves and hoard their player resources, that dynasty in the 1990s likely never would have happened.

But, I have some bad news for you: your youth team is not the Dallas Cowboys, as much as we might want to believe it to be the case. And if you run a youth sports organization, your goal is not simply to identify and distribute those children with superior athletic ability, but to work on designing and implementing systems that operate to develop that ability in as many children as possible. And, make no mistake, these are very different goals.

So, I’ll return to my title question: What if we didn’t treat these young all-stars as the rare, finite keys to success, but instead worked to develop a system that approached the development of that potential in all our athletes? We tend to glorify natural ability so much that we don’t often work to develop the abilities of those who don’t seem to have them. This may not be a huge problem for the one 8-and-under coed basketball team you coach this Spring; however, if we are looking at our bigger systems of development we can see larger failings to adequately develop a broad pool of young athletes. But if we stop treating an 11-year old soccer prodigy as a finished product who can win us games and start treating all the 11-year olds in our program as potential prodigies, we actually can create a subtle-yet-powerful paradigm shift.

I’ll leave you with a little food for thought…Here is Malcolm Gladwell, discussing some studies on elite Canadian hockey players and their birthdays, which were cited in his Outliers book. Is this related to what we’ve just discussed? What happens when we rethink aspects of our systems for athlete development? Could things as seemingly innocuous as the way we treat young stars or the birthday cut-off we use really make a difference in our outcomes? Yes. And we here at Hook & Ladder have the background and know-how to help you start to see your organization through a different lens.


Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 3: Levels and Badges

Note: This is Part 3 in a series exploring what youth sports can learn from how video games connect with and motivate children. To read the introduction to the series and Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Point #3: Video games incorporate game design elements like levels and badges to chart development and motivate children to continue playing. If you’ve played a lot of video games, you know the satisfaction that comes from finally completing a difficult level. After multiple attempts and much frustration, you finally figured out how to maneuver through the pitfalls to reach safety and advance to the next level. Not only do you now get to “level up” to an even more challenging level that builds upon the skills you developed in the preceding level, but your avatar also has earned a “badge” with, for example, a picture of a fox on it that signifies to all other players that you completed the level through a remarkable demonstration of virtual cunning and guile. The better you perform, the more levels you complete and the more badges you earn. Do the badges really mean anything? Not really, but if you identify yourself as a gamer and your performance on the game has socially-constructed meaning for you, then earning badges to be displayed in the profile that others can see serves as an important representation of yourself to a social group about whom you care. Did I lose some of you? For more on the increasing use of gamification and the potential value of game design elements, watch some YouTube videos like this one – or sign up to take a free online Wharton business course on the topic.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? Although we are pretty good at talking about the value of winning in contrast to the experience of losing, we are not great about incentivizing children with smaller, achievable tasks and goals to support the pursuit of excellence. As we described in our last post, we tend to so heavily weight the outcomes of sport performance that we don’t dedicate the type of attention to promoting mastery of the process that would be developmentally ideal. So, how can we take some of the emphasis from the outcomes and shift it toward the process of becoming a better athlete for children? One way to do so is to design a system of levels and badges like we see in video games. To give credit where it’s due, martial arts has been drawing from these principles with its systems of belt- and stripe-promotion long before video games were around. And there is a reason that the practice has persisted. Martial arts belts are like badges you receive for completing a level (hence, demonstrating the skills necessary to achieve that level). They serve both as an outward indicator of accomplishment and a more internal motivator to achieve. We have worked with some youth sport organizations to institute systems of levels and badges for youth basketball players, for example. So, when a child completed a particular developmentally-significant set of skills like being able to dribble down the court and properly execute a layup, she was given a yellow sweat band to replace the white sweat band that all players receive upon signing up. By tying the sweat bands to the achievement of certain levels of skill, we not only create a system where coaches and trainers can clearly see who has or has not progressed toward the fundamental skills we are teaching at that level (so that we can intervene and help move them toward reaching this marker), but the children are motivated socially to want to work toward mastering the skills that will allow them to receive their sweat band promotion like their friends. And, in this way, we shift the focus from simply who wins or loses the games toward a mastery orientation where skill development in practice is given its proper emphasis.

Stay tuned for more ideas about how video games can be used to inform what we do with children in a youth sports setting…



Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 2: Process vs. Outcome

Note: This is Part 2 in a series exploring what youth sports can learn from how video games connect with and motivate children. To read the introduction to this series and the first installment, click here.

Point #2: Video Games create an environment where failure is part of the learning process. Have you ever sat and watched a child play a difficult video game (or played one yourself)? What happens when the child’s avatar “dies” or he fails the level? Does he throw the controller in frustration and talk about how he wants to quit video games? Maybe every now and again, but that type of response is much more likely to be exhibited by a child striking out after a Little League at-bat than a child failing to complete a video game level – at least according to our years of experience studying the behavior of children. More often than not, when children lose at video games, they simply start the level over and try to correct their mistakes from the previous attempt. In other words, they refine their play and work to perform at a higher level: they learn.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? The important social and cultural meanings we attach to sport performance at any level make it difficult to create an environment where children focus on learning and improving from failure or underperformance. The big sticking point in making progress to develop these types of developmental environments is the inevitable importance we attach to outcomes when evaluating sport performance. The reality, however, is that the research literature has shown that it really doesn’t matter whether your kid or your team win or lose until they enter their teen years, more or less. Now, this observation is always met with indignation by parents and coaches who place subjective value on “learning to be a winner” or some other pseudoscientific justification. Virtually all of the developmental research shows that if we focus on mastery and emphasize the process instead of the outcome, our children will develop to be better athletes and better people. We adults just haven’t yet figured out how we can realistically do that. One of many things that we help our clients implement is a system for teaching children, parents, and coaches what specific skills to focus on during practices and games when evaluating the child’s performance. If your developmental program emphasizes decision-making, it is more beneficial for you to be tracking the length of time between when the ball is passed to a player and when he/she makes a decision with what to do with that ball. If the shot goes through the net, that’s fantastic…but it’s also developmentally secondary during this period. By focusing on processes that children can control over outcomes that they ultimately cannot (like winning the game), we can take steps to create a learning environment focused on mastery – and one that looks much more like what appeals to children about many video games.

Stay tuned for our next installment in the series…

Mythbusting Video Games as “The Problem,” Part 1: Feedback

When we are out working with an organization, one of the most common questions we get – especially from frustrated parents – is “Why would my kid rather sit inside playing video games than be out running around with his/her friends?” This question usually is then followed by a long speech about how the parent used to play outside from the minute school let until the sun had gone down and the dinner bell rung.

As a society, we have responded to the increase in video game play amongst our children largely by talking about how video games have cast some evil spell over kids and are making them fat, rotting their brains, etc.

But, what we haven’t spent a lot of time doing is asking ourselves what it is about video games that often make them so much more appealing to children than going outside and playing sports. In other words, why do kids want to play video games in the first place?

The research at this stage is pretty conclusive about what makes video games appealing, and as you examine some of these key principles of video gaming, we challenge you to use these principles as a lens to question not what is wrong with our children for wanting to play video games, but what may be wrong with our youth sports programs that they aren’t able to connect with children in the same manner.

Over the next few posts, we will be discussing why video games are winning the battle for our children’s attention. As we discuss each of these principles, it should start to become quite obvious that if we want to get our children back out and enjoying sports, we need to take a hard look at how we design our youth sports programs…

Point #1: Video games provide immediate feedback on your performance. Think of just about any 5-7 year old soccer match you’ve been to recently. It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that at least a handful of the kids were running around with confused looks on their faces while trying to understand what they are supposed to do as the “good” kid dribbles around the field and the parents shout “boot it!” every time the ball rolls toward him or her. That child has no way of evaluating his or her performance in a game where they ran around confused, kicked the ball five times, and lost the game 6-1. That’s not fun – and it has nothing to do with winning or losing. What it has to do with is the child being able to internally gauge their progress and performance. What is a good game? A five-year-old has very little idea other than what he or she perceives the reactions of others to be. In a video game, however, children have points and levels and all sorts of easy-to-interpret indicators to tell them exactly how they are doing…and the children have the opportunity to figure out on their own what they need to do to make improvements.

How can we improve our youth sport experience? Well, there are a number of things that parents and coaches can do. Let’s discuss one idea. If one of the benefits of playing video games is the immediate feedback it provides about the child’s performance, we need to think about how we can create a more responsive feedback mechanism for our five-year-old who is chasing butterflies and confused about what the adults are yelling. For this child, the only feedback provided is “did I screw up or not when I kicked the ball?” and “did we win the game?” Neither of those feedback mechanisms do much to foster a desire to want to keep playing and improving. But, if we break down the game into mini-games for the players that occur within the larger “real” game, we can redirect their attention toward something productive and motivating. So, rather than just measuring how many goals a child scored, we can measure and track all sorts of other behaviors, such as the number of times the child ran up and down the field, the number of passes he or she completed, or even zanier types of behaviors of your own devising. These are all behaviors that can assist in the child’s development, but which can also be a fun source of feedback for the child regardless of how many goals or scored or whether a game is won or lost – feedback that is individual and not as dependent on overall team performance.

At Hook & Ladder, we often work with youth sports organizations who are trying to find ways to re-engage with children while fostering their development. This is just one example of some of the types of kid-tested, science-approved program design elements we can bring to your organization. Stay tuned for our next post on video games and how we may be able to use their design principles to get our children to put down the controllers and head back outside…

Things Heating Up: H&L Announcement Coming Soon

It has been a busy summer at H&L HQ and things seem to really be heating up – both literally and figuratively. In addition to wrapping up some projects, Tolga has been spending some time overseas and I have been teaching a pretty full summer load at the ol’ university.

In spite of all the other things going on, we have been working diligently behind the scenes on a major development that we will be announcing in the coming month or so. This latest development will not only be something that can help us continue to serve our current client base, but will enable H&L to take steps toward playing a more influential role in the global conversation about sports, innovation, and what the future can hold for the role of sports in society.

So, stay tuned for the big news…

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and Change.

As the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference winds down, an article written by The Atlantic‘s Dashiell Bennet asks an important question: why do people still not believe the best new ideas in sports? This is a not a new question. In fact, it’s an age-old question of those (few) scholars interested in the social psychology of sports. The real question that this all boils down to, however, is actually more like, “why do people place higher value in their subjective experiences in sport than they do in empirical data?”

This question has all sorts of interesting implications for sports organizations. Moneyball was just the tip of the iceberg, and player scouting and development is just one area impacted by shifting from valuing experience over analysis. For instance, how does this mentality impact the behavior of fans? We can translate the science that will allow you to understand the psychological biases and fallacies currently holding your organization back as those around you innovate. Change is coming. The sooner you position your organization to take advantage of the latest developments, the sooner you gain a step on the competition.

David Foster Wallace, Derrick Rose, and PR

Athlete interviews are an essential part of any sport organization’s public relations functions. One of the constant challenges facing PR professionals is training athletes to be engaging while staying on-message. It often seems that athletes are either too over-the-top or just downright dull in their responses. Take, for example, this snoozer from Derrick Rose:

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