LTAD, Michael Jackson and the CAVB

April 05, 2010, 6:27 p.m. (ET)

Symbolically I start this blog as I am flying over Olympia, Greece, one of my favorite places to visit and be inspired in the world.  We are about 90 minutes into our 11.5 hour flight home from an African Volleyball Confederation (CAVB) Symposium just finished yesterday in Cairo, Egypt. I am across the row from Carl McGown and we both are intently watching the late Michael Jackson – “The Man” as they all call him, rehearsing and performing in the movie “This is It.” The complexity of the choreography, from sets to lighting and musical, even sounds arrangements, and shooting the background films which would have played in the 3-D version of “Thriller” is just astounding – and it is all expert performers learning motor programs.  Even in props the staff talks about talking with scientists from all over the world about pushing the boundaries of building props around the human body.

The director talks so specifically it is wonderful, from a motor learning point of view. The number of hours of deliberate practice learning his craft showing,  as he sings Jackson 5 songs like “I’ll Be There” with film of him performing the same song over 40 years before. It is not just the famous 10,000 hours to be an expert as shared by Ericsson’s research, I bet it is more like 100,000 hours for “The Man.” The staff talks to each other with feedforward, about that which needs to be done, rarely about the mistakes. Watching the hundreds of best dancers from all over the world, get narrowed to the top twenty women and men, is like a high speed national team tryout and final selection process all in one.

MJ says to the musical director, “I want it the way I wrote it” and the director responds back”I love to have Michael Jackson here, he knows his songs, his tempos, his keys,” then he hears “You gotta let it simmer, just bathe in the moonlight….” and they both know what simmer means, just like we know what tempo means or the options of a “Bic” are on the national team. “Michael is a perfectionist, you can’t fool Michael as he knows his records so well”….and when errors happen, MJ responds, “That’s why we have rehearsal….”

The lead guitarist performs in lighted steam vents and while running and gets told by MJ, “hit that high note as it is your time to shine” or MJ sings from a cherry picker, challenging these experts to a new level of success. At this “Church of rock and roll” as they call it, MJ asks the performers to “Give me your endurance and patience and this is an adventure – give your all, and I thank you for your cooperation….”

Carl is “The Man” for USA Volleyball when it comes to learning motor skills faster. Lucky were the 115 coaches from over 30 nations, from Poland or Austria (no less than Franz Klammer’s former coach) and India, to all over the African continent to get to spend four days learning from him. Doug Beal did his usual great teaching of how we have won gold medals in three Olympics and what the future of the sport is likely to be. Bill Neville, Rob Browning and I shared other insights on all levels from drill creation, scoring, and design, to beach, youth and Paralympic options.

We visited this cradle of civilization at the request of Dr. El Wani, FIVB Vice President, who along with his CAVB staff staged an excellent event. The Heliopolis Sports Club we trained at is larger than my college alma mater’s entire campus. I pulled my kids out of school for 6 days, so they could join me in our non-clinic time, seeing the amazing pyramids, Suez Canal, and National Museum, floating the Nile River, riding camels, browsing 1,200 year old shops visiting another nation’s school and training with another nation’s volleyball program and watching the Egypt Cup semifinals in the same gym just five days before the USA Sitting Women’s team won the gold in the World Cup. We also did not go hungry on these sojourns, as they really know how to eat too.

 Personally, three things stood out –

1. The vast number of satellite dishes on top of every building.

2. The green lights of thousands of mosques in just one city.

3. The expert skill every driver had in driving with no lanes, inches away from a pack of fellow speeding cars or trucks, flying in a formation tighter than the US Navy’s Blue Angels or US Air Force Thunderbirds, with only a horn honk to signal intentions. In a car full of coaches who know motor learning, the Egyptian driver’s skill, and lack of anger, was marveled at and discussed on every ride.

One of those things we shared at this Symposium was information on Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) which our neighbors to the north in Canada have done a great job in building. Fred Sturm, 1992 and 96 Olympic Men’s coach, could not join us but shared his summary of LTAD first presented at the Peak Performers Symposium in Europe. I will share my notes and thoughts on some of the pertinent points for all growing the game here:

First, it is about “Opportunities to Respond” getting the thousands of hours to practice (and we had a USAV Banner in the Sports Club court which said “Contacts per Hour”) and secondly, we must know that motor learning and talent development research has found that “Initial Ability has nothing to do with final ability.”

It’s not only about the hours, it is about effort, focused and deliberate, sport specific practice, designed specifically to improve performance. This at times may not be much fun, but you must be mindful in your training, and Fred quoted Mathan Milleiem, who stated “If you only practice with your body, no amount of time is enough.”

It is also important to note that an EXPERT coach is the difference. A coach who is using best teaching and learning methods and who can apply the concepts of deliberate play and deliberate practice in the optimal, appropriate context. An expert coach uses training activities that produce the most amount of transfer. These coaches, just like athletes, need deliberate practice hours to establish a deep domain of specific knowledge. 

From a National team success point of view, and related High Performance program, It is about having a large group of aspiring champions and keeping them in your system as long as possible….I think it is important to say again, that research shows initial ability has nothing to do with final ability. For every MJ, there are millions of performers around the world who have not reached a high level. At the end of this month I get to spend time with Dan Coyle author of The Talent Code. He has written regarding talent that even being a prodigy, a “talented” youth, does not have any correlation to being a talent in much later years. For every Tiger Woods, and several hundred PGA golfers, you have TENS of millions of golfers who are part of that “large group.” 

Fred also quoted the great music teacher Hans Jenson, who said “I give everyone my best, what happens after that, who can know.”  MJ, and Tiger Woods, were early starters who also achieved later success, but even in the same gene pool, can you name the others in the Jackson 5? Your USAV youth and Junior Volleyball programming needs to have a place for slow developing players, later developing players, and both early AND late starters. We just need to give them all a love of the game, through deliberate play and deliberate practice, and then “who can know…”

“This is It” ends with the song “Man in the Mirror.” “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways….it you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself then make that change…” I hope you all continue to grow and change based on the newest science and information we share, and also reach out to grow the sport – as we challenged the coaches of CAVB to return with their new found knowledge to their respective nations, and not just use it, but teach it and share it, for that which you teach, you learn. We ask that each of you take time to share things you have learned from USA Volleyball programming, with parents, players and fellow coaches. We are all lucky that people like Carl, Doug, Bill and Rob do the same as much as they can, to make this world a better place… 

Meanwhile, life returns to normal, as we land in Denver at midnite, drive the 90 miles home to the Springs and have boys open gym at 7:30 am, and a match that night...and the joys of travel, with it's roots in travail....

The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On April 14, 2010 Trish Sokoul wrote

Can't wait to see your special presentation tonight the Regulator. Wicked is such great theater, and look forward to hearing your take on it as it relates to your work. I love how you use the powerful images of mythology to spin your tales. For those of you in the Durham area, John is at the Regulator at 7pm.

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