The Signature Game


Life in the 21st Century can get needlessly complicated. Playing a sport, for  example. Lately, play has turned into a form of work. Instead of just enjoying ourselves on the playground, tennis court, or skating pond, modern sports culture reframes recreation as a task—something we should be constantly working at to “get better.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeking mastery in a game you like. But a learning curve should not override enjoyment. It should actually be fun to become the best player you can. Unfortunately, a new mega-industry, the “sports-industrial complex,” has transformed recreation into a business. And as we know, the venue of business is not where we go to play, but a workplace

Sports have become a year-round, endlessly competitive, painfully expensive rat race.  And the sports  business makes sure to enlist a crucial consumer base—children—as early as possible. So a barrage of organized leagues and championships, gyms and fitness trainers, high-priced coaching, travel teams, costly equipment, pricy summer camps, and year-round sports academies now sap children’s enthusiasm and parents’ bank accounts. The kids are made to chase perfection and winning records with no idea, really, why they are doing so. They are caught in an organized, highly competitive structure managed by adults, largely to fulfill adult priorities.

The Signature Game will show a route out of this maze. We will describe how to reinvent sports as recreational social play. Learning a game in playful local environments actually cultivates skill and creativity far better than subjecting kids to a year-round grind that drives them out of sports altogether by their teens. Local, free, or low-cost resources can support social play rather than zero-sum competition. Let’s give the ball back to the players, and the parks back to the parents. This approach can keep alive young people’s excitement, enjoyment, and fun—and even summon the joy of childhood for adult athletes.

The Signature Game argues for a mode of learning diametrically opposed to the conventional bromides that coaches so often mindlessly recite. Learners can do for themselves much of what they now delegate to mentors. “Signature” athletes discover how to maximize performance by cultivating unique, personal styles of play. Instead of swallowing received wisdom, they build their own wisdom. Each unique individual has an innately personal approach to let bloom.

The signature model works for all ages, all skill levels, and all sports. Furthermore, we show how to design optimal learning environments that are unlike prevailing formats— the stressful, costly programs of coaching, technical analysis, drilling, and aping of pro athletes. For kids, this means dodging the sports-industrial complex that now drives 70 percent of children out of organized sports by age 13.

Over the last 15 years, the privatization of youth sports (“pay to play”) has been snowballing. Adult goals like making money or landing athletic scholarships have pushed aside kids’ one and only goal: to have fun. Business aims have ridden roughshod over children’s preferences of how to spend their fleeting years of youth. This turnabout has drained away fun and burned out millions of youngsters.

Social recreation, in contrast, develops lifelong athletes. A healthy sports culture encourages social play. Though you would never know this from watching television, social, recreational play characterizes 99 percent of the time human beings spend playing sports.

In The Signature Game, parents will learn how to save vast sums of money without sacrificing their kids’ athletic development. Furthermore, physically active adults, parents or not, will find personal paths to excellence in recreation. They will learn how to become both player and coach, student and teacher, simultaneously.

The sports-industrial complex now commands widespread influence. In fact, many parents, adults, and youthful athletes see no alternative to the year-round grind of instruction and competing.

Instead, as a parent you may want to stand up to marketing pressure to make your kid specialize in one sport and compete at a young age. Perhaps you also want to preserve strong bonds in your family—the kind of bonds the rat race of competitive sports can decimate. If so, you are holding a guidebook to a different, enjoyable, and more effective route to learning how to play—or to help a young person do so.

Perhaps you are a coach, either a paid professional or a “soccer mom” running her kid’s team. You can reinvent the coaching job. Instead of delivering an athletic “blueprint” to players, you’ll design learning scenarios where they can sketch their own blueprints. Seeing a child blaze his or her own trail to excellence ranks among life’s great pleasures.

The true role of a coach is to help players actively learn their sport rather than teaching it to them. That’s a crucial distinction because it puts the learner in charge. Students should not be following a recipe like one for baking a cake to “bake” a breast stroke, a forehand, or a fastball. Instead they must learn to construct a breast stroke, forehand, or fastball delivery and use it in a race, match, or ballgame.

Whoever plays a signature game will also harvest a psychological bonus. Executing a signature style is like living in a home you designed and built yourself. The dwelling reflects your personal approach to life. Your imagination shines through the structure, be it a kitchen or a game plan.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” goes the saying. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Consequently, to reap the rewards of a signature approach, you’ll probably need to set aside much of what you know, or think you know, about learning and sports. Many of us cling fiercely to deeply entrenched myths.

For example, “we learn only by imitating others who are more advanced, and the best models are the star players.” Or, “coaches know so much more than I do, so I need to download their expert knowledge into my brain.“ Since “competition is the forge of  excellence,” always “seek out the strongest opponents.” And, “all results matter, and winning is the result that really counts.” Such beliefs are so widely accepted that they have  become clichés.

Yet these ideas are red herrings that will block you from improving. In part, this is because you have more natural skill than you give yourself credit for. So do your kids. Therefore the crucial task is not to download what’s in a coach’s head, but to upload the instinctive skills innately present in your body. They are the gift of DNA.

This is not to cancel coaching. A coach can indeed be helpful, but you need to know how to shop for the right coach. Or if you’re a coach yourself, to learn some innovative principles will let your charges bloom.

Some classic rubrics do have value. For example, imitating others can inspire. We all learn to speak by imitating. Unfortunately, imitation can also lead us down a detrimental path. Pro golfer Jim Furyk rose to become one of the world’s best, but he did so with an unorthodox grip and stroke that would never work for 99 percent of the game’s players. So you must be sure you’re following your own muse, not someone else’s.

Parents often harbor myths that stall their kids’ progress. For example, the hovering “helicopter parents” of the 1990s gave way to the “snowplow parents” of the 21st century who are determined to clear an open, obstacle-free path for their children. But even if they succeed at this, the result will not be what they had hoped. Recall Carl J. Jung’s apothegm: “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” The very hurdles that your offspring confront are actually their teachers, offering chances to learn. Solving each unique problem in her own way, the young athletes raise their skill levels while building confidence in their ability to conquer setbacks.

Take another piece of “common sense” knowledge: “competition is the refiner’s fire of excellence.” And, “results are what matter the most.” (Translation: it’s what you achieve, not how you did it.)

These, too, are myths to shelve. Winning and “results” depend greatly on the skill of the opponent; if you want to win all the time, just make sure to play against poor athletes. But the real quest in sports is to master a discipline, not win games. Realizing this uncovers the fact that your real competition is with yourself. If you continue to become better than you were last year—or yesterday—then you are on the trail of mastery, aka learning. Stay that course and your competitive results will improve as well.

Our analysis occasionally uses terms that may be unfamiliar. The “sports-industrial complex,” for example, is shorthand for the international array of businesses that market many elements of sports participation. These include equipment, apparel, coach and trainer services, camps, academies, leagues, tournaments, registration fees, elite “travel team” memberships, and travel to events—for starters.

“Sports-industrial complex” spins off from the classic phrase “the military-industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in his 1961 farewell address. A career military man himself, “Ike” saw ominous fallout coming downstream from an alliance of powerful Pentagon interests with defense industries, a coalition that was shaping America’s foreign and domestic policies, including the national budget.

“The sports-industrial complex” includes major powers from the private and public sectors, the educational establishment, and nonprofit organizations. The two “complexes” share the same purpose: to equip and train Americans for battles and wars. With sports, though, the warfare plays out on football fields, tennis courts, and in swimming pools. These aren’t shooting wars, but symbolic ones: baseballs, not bullets, fly through the air. Yet in both cases, billions of dollars change hands and powerful interests teach their military or athletic soldiers how to think.

“Travel teams” is another newish term. These are privately-organized athletic teams in various sports, organized from the ranks of allegedly “elite” athletes, some as young as 8 years or even younger. They are also called “club” teams, since their membership typically draws from an entire region to compose squads with names like “Southern Connecticut Soccer Club,” which plucks top players from several neighboring schools.

Travel teams do in fact travel—in the local region, statewide, or even around the country—to play matches with other elite teams of young athletes. Membership comes at a steep price, and with travel and training continuing almost year-round, they generate enormous expenses for athletes’ families.

The United States, along with much of the industrialized world, balances on the brink of a cultural revolution. The visible, aboveground, public circus of sports tells a rosy tale: we live in the best athletic era ever, with records being broken every week or so, new training methods emerging constantly, and fresh athletic stars appearing in all games. We are living, apparently, in the best of all possible sporting worlds.

But the subtext tells a much darker tale. Below ground, tectonic plates of dismay, frustration, resentment, and anger are poised for an earthquake. Millions who find themselves caught in the web of the sports-industrial complex (especially the bill-paying parents) have become exasperated at both the price tag and the results. Their kids are not having fun, most are quitting sports entirely, and 99 percent of those who continue playing fail to win those coveted collegiate athletic scholarships, let alone pro careers. Getting no “bang for the buck”—actually, for many bucks—has infuriated Mom and Dad. They are seething. They will trigger that earthquake: it’s not a question of if, it is only when.

In sports today, children are victims, pawns in the game. Kids are extremely vulnerable, because in our society, youngsters have essentially no voice in public debates or policy, or even family decisions. They are disenfranchised, much like pets and farm animals. But parents do have a voice, and those voices must be heard. They are paying the piper, and will insist on calling the tune.

The model of youth sports that’s been sold so aggressively for decades has, of late, come under scrutiny. Its financial cost continues to rise  steeply. Even worse are the consequences for coming generation(s). We are not talking about pro or even varsity athletes here, but the grassroots of sports: families from all parts of society.

Youth sports are leaking kids.  Participation is dropping across the board. A notable 2016 survey by the National Alliance for Youth Sports showed that 70 percent of children quit organized sports by age 13, mostly since “it’s just not fun anymore.” Zealous parents and coaches have made a fetish of winning even at small tykes’ games. High expectations and perfectionism lock the little athletes inside a pressure cooker. Stress crushes even four-year-old beginners and continues all the way up to the top professional ranks, where champions like tennis pro Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles have cited “pressure” as a key mental-health issue that caused them to withdraw from competitions.

Ten years ago, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) had 190,000 junior players. Today, that number has dwindled by more than half to  80,000. Other sports are also seeing declines in participation. Furthermore, a 2020 UNICEF study of developed nations ranked American kids 38th of 38 countries in physical health, and 32nd in skills and mental well-being.

These downward trends have snowballed in the past 15  years. For one thing, in the United States, the 2008 economic meltdown pared down municipal tax revenues. Many towns chose to balance budgets by eliminating or slashing “frills,” e.g., physical education. The recession ended, but those programs never returned. Half of U.S. schools no longer have recess, and nearly half no longer offer traditional physical education.

Vanishing public resources opened the door to a flood of private entrepreneurship. Hence, in the 15 years since the Great Recession, the “pay to play” mode has mushroomed into a $30-40 billion industry. (For comparison, in 2022, the National Football League took in $18 billion.) The privatization of youth sports has also magnified how income and race affect access to quality recreation.

Social trends, particularly the rise of the sports-industrial complex, have reshaped athletics, reducing participation and making children into cogs of business. The profit motive has dragged recreation into the marketplace. There, children become pawns in a business game, instead of kids playing a recreational one.

Although the privatized sports industry naturally makes strenuous efforts to bury its pitfalls beneath a public relations avalanche, the real issues have become so pervasive and severe that they can no longer be covered up. Things are percolating to the surface. Over the last decade or so, a few books have blown whistles about the debacle. These often take the form of parental handbooks on how to cope with the world kids now confront, along with advice for those who coach.

Their authors, including some professional coaches, do advise “jock parents” to avoid early specialization in one discipline as well as exorbitant coaching programs, camps, and travel teams. Some even flag the over-emphasis on winning and results, along with other booby traps embedded in current sports culture. In general, though, even the critical books accept the basic structure of education that shapes the way kids get introduced to sports.

In contrast, The Signature Game proposes a radical solution. Our basic premise is that the most underutilized resource in education is the learner. All students—children and adults—begin their playing days with an abundance of skills, knowledge, and instinctive gifts they can apply in any discipline. Educational research recognizes this principle as a core element of the “constructivist” approach, with roots traceable to educational pioneers like John Dewey (American, 1859-1952) and Maria Montessori (Italian, 1870-1952), along with psychologists Jean Piaget (Swiss, 1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (Soviet, 1896-1934).

Instead of viewing learners as empty vessels for teachers to fill, constructivism asserts that each student comes with a repertoire of resources, talents, knowledge, and skills that will actively shape their learning experiences. The student constructs meaningful insights. They learn by building on, and with, those personal gifts.

In modern times, constructivist American educator David Ausubel has advanced the concept of “meaningful learning,” in contrast to the quickly-forgotten “rote learning” that characterizes so much of how we teach youngsters, both in the classroom and on the sporting turf.

In The Signature Game, we apply meaningful learning to sports. Currently, rote learning dominates coaching, especially rote acquisition of techniques. Surely, some techniques have value, but many conventional bromides about how to hit a volleyball kill shot or swim a backstroke rest on no more than dogma. And creative athletes modify even basically sound techniques to suit their situations and preferences. Signature learning encourages players to trust their innate abilities and build on them.

Rote learning, in contrast, imposes external elements to the student. Thus, the aspiring athlete often feels he or she is “performing” a “correct” (or incorrect) move, rather than experiencing the sensations and perceptions of the moment and responding to them.

In meaningful learning, the learner seeks out and cultivates techniques that serve his or her style and strategy of play. Inner goals drive this pursuit, generating a feeling of ownership. When the learner adopts techniques that serve personal goals, education becomes meaningful. Students feel a deeper motivation to persevere, since what they learn has personal meaning and consequences.

Thus, The Signature Game goes far beyond its critique of the sports-industrial complex. The book is less a way to combat the status quo than an outline of something to replace it: an alternate track built on an entirely different educational philosophy.

As co-authors, we have backgrounds that overlap in several ways and also radically differ in complementary aspects.

Dick Herbst grew up in an athletically-inclined family in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of 200,000 where his father, Richard Sr., was a beloved football coach and teacher of physical education. As  a savvy coach, he understood athletic development as few of his peers did. He got young Dick off to a good start and the boy soon was shining as an athlete in pickup basketball, ice hockey, and baseball, plus competitive badminton, table tennis, and football. He quarterbacked the junior-high football team.

Yet young Dick was dyslexic, thus unable to read as early as his peers. Herbst’s frustrating time in grade school may actually have forged his lifelong passion for education and learning, since the established school system did so poorly on these with him.

Dick discovered tennis at a local club at age 14 and received a playing membership in exchange for working there as a jack of all trades. He  loved playing tennis and his multi-sport athleticism served him well, so Dick progressed quickly. Most helpful was the chance to play tennis daily, often multiple times per day, as a fill-in at junior and adult recreational games: singles with teenagers, being a fourth for senior women’s doubles, round-robins among middle aged men, and everything else played on a tennis court.

Without even a single tennis lesson, Herbst’s relentless exposure to all styles of recreational play fast-tracked his growth in tennis. In a few years he became one of the top-ranked junior boys in New England, and won an athletic scholarship to Bowling Green State University in Ohio. After a year, he transferred to tennis powerhouse Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where he played for the varsity under coaches Larry Riggs and Allen Fox.

Post-college, Dick turned pro and played professional tournaments in North America, Europe, the Mideast, and Asia. After retiring from touring, he became a tennis coach who has worked for decades with players at all levels, from beginners to top professional performers such as Patrick McEnroe and Tim Mayotte. He also served as head tennis coach at  Clark University and was a national junior coach for the United States Tennis Association.  Today, Dick coaches athletes in basketball, baseball, lacrosse, and soccer, in addition to tennis. He invented the “3-D sports training wall” that he uses with athletes at his performance studio in Bradenton, Florida.

Like Herbst, Craig Lambert grew up playing baseball, football, and basketball on a “sandlot” basis, although Lambert did so in the countryside of northern New Jersey. He, too, has been an avid sports fan since childhood.

Lambert earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. As a professional journalist, he wrote for Sports Illustrated and Town and Country before beginning a 26-year career as a staff writer and editor at Harvard Magazine, the alumni publication of his alma mater. There, he was the principal sportswriter in addition to covering the arts and academic research. His sports stories and profiles embraced most of Harvard’s 41 varsity sports, the most of any college. Subjects included future NFL and NBA players, NCAA champions, and Olympic athletes.

As an amateur oarsman. Lambert competed in racing shells for 20 years and eventually wrote a book-length personal essay on rowing, Mind Over Water: Lessons on Life from the Art of Rowing (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). Throughout adulthood, he has played recreational and tournament tennis, and served as the principal online writer for Universal Tennis Ratings, an innovative technique of rating all tennis players on a single scale.

Lambert’s second book, Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day (Counterpoint, 2015) received a cover review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review and received extensive media coverage on CNBC, C-SPAN, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, MSNBC, and many other outlets internationally. It appears in Italian, German, Czech, Korean and Chinese translations. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The path of mastery always starts with a clear, accurate understanding of current reality. The Signature Game opens by describing how a healthy national sports culture looks. Fortunately, a real-world example exists in the nation of Norway. We contrast the Norwegian experience with the pitfalls that litter the American situation, where the business motives of the “sports-industrial complex” play a dominant role.

Next, we define what a signature game is, and how it emerges for learners in recreational, social play—not competition, at least not at first. We tell stories of how athletes redefined their sports according to their unique identities and the problems they confronted—and did so by letting their own lights guide them, without the tutelage of coaches. In fact, many had to stubbornly fight against their coaches to defend unorthodox  innovations that later became staples in their sports.

We next sketch a model of athletic development we call “The Glass Skyscraper.” This image represents progressive levels of expertise stacked atop each other like floors of a skyscraper. Since it’s a glass structure, on any floor the student can look through the ceiling and view life above. Here we play off the familiar image of the “glass ceiling,” originally a metaphor for fixed limits on how high career women could rise in the corporate world before hitting an immovable glass ceiling, which both revealed higher levels and stopped women from reaching them. With The Signature Game, however, the student learns to climb the staircases that connect floors, and so can rise upward without limit.

Next, we identify, describe, and diagnose several endemic traps that the aspiring athlete must avoid to keep improving. These include the addiction to winning and a related compulsion, an overweening focus on competitive results. We’ll identify the red flags that advertise these snares and how to set them aside before they become stubborn obstacles.

We will also investigate the familiar, though meretricious, practice of rote learning. Rote education an imprison students in an invisible cage, believing they have learned all the relevant elements for success when in fact they have not gained real ownership of any of them. A classic mode of rote learning is imitation of other players, particularly eminent ones. True, imitation can play a useful role in many spheres of learning. Yet, at some point, imitating others’ styles of play will cap one’s own development. Signature athletes realize that at some point they must clear a trail that’s entirely their own.

We’ll also unpack the fetish of technique, a frequent subject of rote learning. Teaching things like strategic thinking or problem-solving can be a rather tricky pursuit for a coach. Yet both are essentials in most any game. On the other hand, teaching technique—like how to swim the butterfly stroke or hit a slice backhand in tennis—is relatively feasible. Techniques are concrete, repeatable moves that coaches remove from the live context of playing. So they make excellent units for drills. Alas, the repetitive drilling of techniques is exactly what much of sports instruction has become.

Technical training is a boon for coaches. The problem is that every sport includes many athletes who have learned techniques well, but have no real grasp of how to apply them in a successful game plan—or maybe even how to create a game plan. This is one drawback of rote learning. Without ownership, techniques do not help with the student’s real-world goals.

Those goals reflect our aspiring athlete’s intentions: what he or she really wants to accomplish. A signature game becomes a reliable route to mastery that satisfies inner desires while fulfilling external ambitions.

We’ll reframe the question of technique by contrasting shotmakers and playmakers. Technical excellence risks developing polished shotmakers who don’t know how to create chances to play those superb shots, and so cannot fire their weapons often enough to succeed.

Playmakers have solved this riddle. They have studied the way shots and plays fit into the larger fabric of their games, so their intentions get embodied in a sequence of several shots, passes, or moves. Perhaps in practice, a basketballer has worked up an excellent outside shot, and now needs to work with teammates to learn patterns of passing and moving that will get him or her the ball when open to shoot.

We will then describe coaching in the self-discovery, aka “signature” mode. The coach no longer installs elements from his superior knowledge base into his students’ minds and then urges them to execute the recommended techniques. This is an athletic version of rote learning. But if the coach no longer tells you want to do, then what?

In self-discovery mode, the coach has a more creative role than before. Coaches need to design a learning environment that enables students to graduate from what they think they know to uncover new possibilities. Maybe this means putting a bicycle racer onto a fixed-gear bike that lets the athlete figure out how to flatten hills without a lower gear. Or setting up a volleyball net and having a tennis player rally with a foosball to get a feeling for hitting balls with greater clearance above a net that consequently land deeper in the other court.

The book winds up with a meditation on thinking versus playing. Playing the game, as opposed to drilling or practicing, inevitably involves improvisation amid novel inputs. Awareness of present reality is essential, and that awareness draws heavily from the five senses. Sense data, by definition, always exists in the present; the eye and ear cannot function in the past or future. So tuning into sense perceptions paves the royal road to mastery. The sense organs will gather the greatest amount of useful data for playing. Doing this will also avoid the trap of thinking about what you are doing (e.g., performing a “technique”), which in itself becomes a distraction from the present—where the game gets played.

As a book, The Signature Game may feel like beams of sunlight pouring through your plate glass window at a fresh angle. In the room, the rays illuminate the same familiar objects that have always there, but in this light, they look somehow different.

We are here to reinvent the process of mastery. Instead of working to take in externally-sourced information, we encourage you to use your “signature” framework to explore your unique experience. Furthermore, nothing will stop you from inventing your own athletic laboratory, where you can experiment with how to build a signature game while becoming your own best coach.

Most likely, you have already endured a lifetime of rote learning, in sports and academic realms. We’ve all absorbed endless amounts of dogma from coaches, teachers, political and religious leaders, and mainstream culture in general.

This heritage is what we call convention, a form of social agreement. Yes, we need certain conventions, like driving on the right side of the road, for society to run safely and smoothly. But your soul and your inner athlete are not at all conventional. They are original, creative, and unique to you. You deserve the chance to invent your own approach to mastering a game, or in fact any art or discipline.

Read this book like a student in design school. When you finish, you may feel like a newly-minted architect, ready to sit down at a drafting table with a fresh sheet of paper, feeling the thrill of finally being able to design a game you will play with creativity and joy.