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A High Performance Expert on Sports Parenting

Published: 2020-07-17
A High Performance Expert on Sports Parenting
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Chief of Sport for USA Volleyball and former Academy Director for Everton Football Club, Dr. Peter Vint, offers his personal and professional parenting wisdoms for moms and dads of young athletes.

SportsEdTV: Dr. Peter Vint, is considered one of the world’s foremost experts in the on High-Performance Athletes. His previous leadership roles have included Academy Director at Everton Football Club, High-Performance Director, and recently, Senior Director for Research and Innovation for the United States Olympic Committee. Dr. Vint is currently the Chief of Sport for USA Volleyball.

Could you share with us your sports background and the path you took from playing sports in your youth to landing a senior role with the United States Olympic Committee?

Dr. Peter Vint: Well, I suppose I was blessed with a bit of competitiveness from a family raised in the Midwest—and just somebody that, through my dad and through my cousins, would play sports all the time growing up, just really informal stuff.

I ended up pursuing baseball as a young athlete and then made a transition into soccer when I was in high school and really enjoyed that, but quickly realized that I wasn't particularly fast and I wasn't particularly strong.

Over the course of some frustrating experiences, I dedicated myself to just becoming better and spent lots of time kicking soccer balls against the wall of our school, figuring out how to kick it deep and bend and knuckle and all kinds of things.

I think in the process, I began understanding some of the basic ideas around what would become my sport: Science Education.

I was always decent in math and science and high school, and that, coupled with competitiveness, I came to a very clear understanding that I wasn't going to make it as an athlete myself.

Fortunately, I ended up stumbling across the field of biomechanics. That is the study of human motion and ultimately how we can either help improve athlete performances through understanding motion or helping to reduce the predisposition of injury. I fell in love with the study of sports science and that carried me through.

Though I continued to play in competitive club levels throughout college, I fell deeper and deeper into a mission to become more knowledgeable about the science of sport, ending up pursuing a master's and ultimately a PhD.

It was, again, just a recognition that if I wanted to contribute to sport in a professional way, it would be through the application of science and technology.

Ultimately, that's how I arrived at the doorstep of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

SportsEdTV: As an expert in assessing and developing High-Performance athletes, you do have a unique perspective to share with parents of young athletes?

What do you believe are the most underrated factors that parents should consider in the development of a young athlete?

Dr. Peter Vint: I would start by saying almost everything in the trajectory of a young athlete is important in some way. I think it's hard to say what's underrated or overrated.

I think the essence of appropriate coaching at various levels of an athlete's development is essential and the nature of that changes quite a bit over time.

Initially, the early coaching and experience in sport should probably be focused on just the love of the game and really engaging deeply to foster a passion for the sport or sports in general.

Then over time transition into professional type coaching where you're really talking about the X’s and O’s and physical and technical tactical development. But, certainly, that's not necessary early on.

Maintaining a perspective about youth development, particularly as it pertains to the likelihood of any young player advancing through the ranks to get into college, even potentially to make it as a professional, we really need to understand that the road to get there is really long and it's inconsistent. It's going to be full of obstacles in some way, shape or form.

SportsEdTV: You touched on a couple of things there: That it might not be a straight road, but a long and winding one.

Dr. Peter Vint: [Laughs] Lots of potholes along the way.

SportsEdTV: Also, you mentioned making sure that kids love their sport and don't take this professional road too soon.

On that topic, how important do you think it is for kids to be playing multiple sports? And, at what stage in their development do you think it is appropriate that they should specialize in one sport?

Dr. Peter Vint: The way that I'd like to answer is to recognize both sides of the issue.

One, to make to the top levels of sport, which some young athletes aspire to do, I find they have an uncanny commitment toward that.

For those athletes to actually reach the pinnacle of sport and earn a career playing their game or competing in their sport, it takes true mastery and mastery is built over substantial amounts of practice.

Many in your audience will have heard of the ten-thousand-hour rule. While I think it's been shown pretty conclusively that the absolute interpretation of that is meaningless.

The spirit of what that ten-thousand-hour rule says, and how Malcolm Gladwell described that research in Outliers, is that it just takes a lot of dedicated time, commitment, and the accumulation of hours and hours of practice and experience to reach the top of the game.

Two is that it's clear from an empirical perspective that you don't have to actually specialize in any sport along the way, perhaps until you're in late high school or even college and maybe not even then.

From information that comes out from top collegiate programs or professional league drafts showing numbers of players who identified as multi-sport athletes in their background, it is demonstrated very clearly that you do not have to be a single sport specialized athlete by the age of 10 or 12 or 16 in some cases.

Now, that varies in some particular sports and in some early maturing sports, like gymnastics, for example, perhaps figure skating.

Because of the flexibility of young bodies and things that are intrinsic to gymnastics, which make early specialization more a part of the development pathway than in a team sport or in a sport dictated by tactical understanding and proficiency.

I want to recognize that both sides of this exist.

It's actually quite important to say there is no single pathway to take a young athlete from their introduction of sport to the professional ranks. It's as individual as individuals themselves and I think we just need to recognize that there isn't one single way to get from point A to point B.

picture 1SportEdTV: As a parent of a high-performance athlete, your son, Will, 18, is on the books with the Colorado Rapids.

From your experience with Will, how would you describe the path he has taken from local youth soccer all the way through to where he stands today?

Dr. Peter Vint: Will was introduced to the game through his brother. We just tried to introduce our kids to different sports when they were young.

His older brother, Ryan, was playing soccer at the time and Will just thought it looked cool and so grabbed the ball when everybody else was playing and did his own thing. It turned out that he really, really enjoyed it.

But he also was the kind of kid where well, if you actually look at his formal athletic experiences, you would probably classify him as a single sport and early specializer because that was the sport that he did almost exclusively. He would play on occasion, YMCA, league basketball. We had him do swimming lessons because we wanted to be safe in the water.

When you actually look closer at what he did day in, day out, particularly over the summer months, he was kind of this multi-sport athlete on his own.

We had what we kind of referred to as the magic cul de sac that we had kids that were about the same age, usually a little bit older than Will, was that most of them were interested in sport. But they were all interested in different kinds of sports.

There was a family that had a basketball hoop right next to us that they never used, so all the athletic kids would just go and shoot hoops all day and play one on one. He would just engage in things that let him be active from a very young age.

We would just try to get out of his way.

So, he did over time, found his way to youth soccer clubs. He certainly did not start as the best player on his youth six, seven, eight teams. He just loved it.

He had this drive to become better and just kept playing and was doing all kinds of street soccer, in the backyards of our home and with his school buddies. Every chance he got during school, he would play.

So over time, he just became better and better, and particularly in soccer. He decided that he wanted to join a club team. He joined Colorado Springs Pride Soccer Club.

Over a couple of years, Will continued to demonstrate proficiency and eventually played for a team in Denver where a coach had invited him to play with for a week. Will was again knocked down to the middle of the pack and wasn't the best kid on the team.

It ended up being a really great thing for him because he just really enjoyed playing with kids that could play the game at a higher standard than the others he was playing with at the time. So that was kind of his progression.

He continued to move forward and continue to do tons of work. And just not work, he’d play on his own or with his buddies. Over time, I think we've estimated that probably about two-thirds of the total time that he's spent in the sport by the age of 14 was actually spent away from coach-led formal training sessions.

It was just the informal stuff that served him well because he began to really master the ball. His ball mastery ended up being absolutely important when our family moved to England and he was invited to try out with the Everton academy by the head of recruitment. He did that for 16 weeks.

We made the decision that for everybody's best interests (since I was the Academy Director at Everton), it probably wasn't right for him to stay there. So, he joined a city club and that city club was invited to Manchester United for a tournament.

At the tournament, Will, had one of those great days and he made people notice and he was invited to sign for Manchester United as a 15-year-old! He spent about two years there.

That he could get anywhere near a club of that stature, was really a tribute to his dedication to being a master of the ball and doing basic things really well. Certainly, the coaches all along the way that helped foster his love of the game and his understanding of how to play it and progress to higher levels.

picture 3

SportsEdTV: You mentioned his playing with older brother and older kids in the neighborhood—how much of an influence do you think that was at a young age?

Dr. Peter Vint: Well, I think it came from neighborhood kids and his best friend who came from a soccer family. His best friend had an older brother who played at a more competitive level and his dad played in college and as a recreational adult.

They were always playing and he and his friend were the youngest. In order to compete and to make it fun for themselves. I think that was really important.

Will’s older brother ended up kind of stepping away from sport altogether. His interests are very different and that ended up being good in that Ryan had his own groups of friends and activities that didn't compete with Will’s progress through athletics.

SportEdTV: Did Will’s concentrated informal practice time primarily contribute to his pro-level ball control and skills? And is that something you encourage?

Dr. Peter Vint: It’s a topic that lots of professional coaches and clubs wrestle with.

There is a prevailing feeling that if you don't structure something for kids, they won't do anything. Actually, I think if we afford kids more time and less structure and simply provide a safe area or environment in which they can play, they will. Particularly when you can match up kids that have similar interests.

We just got out of the way. It was probably the best thing that we did.

We got into trouble as Will's parents when he began getting into formal club sport and the biggest challenge we had was saying no.

SportEdTV: So as a parent yourself now and obviously with your High-Performance sports background, did that make it easier or harder for you to sit quietly on the sidelines and just observe? Tell us a little bit about that experience.

Dr. Peter Vint: Well, I never had too much difficulty being quiet on the sidelines because I made myself stand behind my video camera as the official videographer of the team and I just couldn’t talk and have my voice end up on the tape.

I made it easy on myself in that regard because I would always try to be with a particular viewpoint of the field, I was often away from other parents, which I think was probably good for everybody.

I suppose as a parent with my background, that there were, early on especially, probably more challenges than just being quiet about things that I knew might be beneficial for Will and his development, whether that was principles of skill acquisition or how can you go about learning something more deeply or nutrition or sleep.

Over time I recognized there really are things that I can do to influence. I can have better food in the house. I can prepare better meals. I can make sure that we all have good sleep environments.

picture 3At the same time, my wife and I recognize that our roles in either of our kid’s development had to be as parent. That was the thing that we alone could uniquely do. We could love and support our boys and no matter what. That's something that we could always offer. We tried really hard to just be parents.

We’ve been imperfect in that regard and Will's mom is a mental health counselor, so she's had input from time to time that's been welcomed in varying degrees. He's a young guy and, you know, going through adolescence and being a teenager and now, as an 18-year-old having a professional contract, he has confidence in his own abilities and how he's gotten there.

Will’s learning and working through the process of what it means to be a professional in sport taking care of your body, making sure you're ready for training and being sure you're fueled so you don't crash as coaches are scrutinizing everything you do.

SportsEdTV: Do you have any advice for clubs or coaches in terms of how they might engage or give productive roles to parents?

Dr. Peter Vint: Yeah, I'm of the opinion that there should be a real partnership between parents and young athletes and coaches.

There are some clubs or some programs that feel that that's just a headache. It's a lot of work. And mostly you get parents that complain about playing time or something else.

As a parent and being friends with lots of other sport parents, I know the things that we want are just good experiences for our kids.

For Will, I wanted him to have some clarity of whether he was getting better or whether there were things that the coaches really wanted him to work on.

For me, I also wanted coaches to know that there were times where he was just competing or training too much and needed some downtime. And I wanted to be free to have that conversation honestly, without reprimand or consequence to Will's development or playing time.

I'm definitely of the opinion that the connection between those three entities: parent, player and coach is a really important one and one that I think can be really embraced by all sides if it's done honestly, with the spirit of supporting the athlete.

SportsEdTV: Sometimes it comes to a decision point in a career where player has a choice to stay in their own country and their own league and or try their luck overseas perhaps to a larger club or a larger league.

What are the pros and cons and the factors that have to be weighed?

Dr. Peter Vint: First and foremost, I'd say that there are very practical issues to consider and particularly in a sport like soccer.

The International Federation and state governments are making it very difficult for any young player to be in the country without their parents being there for non-sporting purposes. So unless you have dual citizenship or you have a grandparent that is from a country that you'll be going to, I think it's a bit easier said than done. You have to be careful what you're putting yourself into.

Otherwise have a fair perspective on why you're doing it. If you're doing it because you think it might be a life-enriching experience to go and live in another country and immerse in a different culture and be around your family and make new acquaintances, then I think that's really positive.

If you go overseas feeling like, well, we need to go because that's the only place my young, 12-year-old footballer can carve out the right trajectory for himself, you will be disappointed in the end out of just sheer probabilistic thinking.

The nature of soccer in the US and in the rest of the world is fairly drastically different in terms of its overall competitiveness. The fact that you might be good enough to enter a youth academy in some other country does not mean that you will progressively advance through that academy.

The scrutiny and the brutal nature by which young players are dismissed from programs and new players are recruited into them is something that very few understand unless you've actually been through it. It can be really challenging.

There is an appeal to it, but I think that there is also potentially an opportunity as the standard of US-based soccer continues to improve. More and more opportunities within the youth space continue to grow and present themselves, including those of USL, USL One, or USL championship academies and those which MLS is fostering.

If you are good enough at the age of 18, when you can legally go and compete in most countries on your own, that's a different dilemma at that point as you might otherwise be heading off to college.

Now you have a chance of either going pro as a young player, as Will did or go abroad and try your luck. It doesn't mean that it will be the only path or opportunity you'll have.

SportsEdTV: Obviously, we live in very much changed times right now. Any thoughts on how you think athletes are going to be coached going now and in the future and what role do you think online education for sports will play in coaching?

Dr. Peter Vint: I can see, for example, there is an opportunity for online communications and training programs and other types of interventions, whether that's nutrition through cooking classes or webinars on recovery or sleep modalities or things like that.

There are things that senior experienced athletes can engage remotely and benefit.

For kids that are, let's say, in the development years, even if it's the competitive development years, it's a little trickier because the determinant will be whether coaches can make it engaging and fun.

If they can, virtual training that is fun and engaging can play a role and might actually be a terrific complement.

At the same time, I think if it's overly prescribed, formal and scheduled, I think it will grow tiresome and cumbersome and make it less fun and really challenge kids to decide whether this is kind of what they signed up for.

Early introductions to sport and games can be super fun, playful, even silly and that's great. The middle ground consists of beginning players and athletes who are more serious and want to keep getting better. That's where there's going to have to be a lot of art in making online sports education an enjoyable way to engage.