I am fortunate to work be still working in an industry that I love, where I have been involved in working from frothing young kids all the way to Olympic champions, and with that experience I have seen all types of athletes, parents and coaches. I have also been lucky to be involved in all parts of the athletic development pipeline. It has been a blast!
I have a general philosophy that kids need to be kids. Let them be multi skilled athletes, let them enjoy many past times and allow them to find their passion. For the majority of the kids out there, it works fine. Most, you just want to be enjoying a healthy lifestyle and building a life long love of sports and physical activity. BUT….there is that small percentage that Malcolm Gladwell has named “outliers” that show a singular focus, from a very young age, as well as a passion and commitment to a sport, that sees them progress at a far higher rate. No matter what parents do by offering other activities, sports and past times, the kids focus for that one sport just wont be broken.
I have had parents, and also some coaches, ask me how you handle this type of youth athlete, especially when it flies in the face of what is philosophically and athletically sensible.
I have come up with a few points that will help coaches and parents to walk that fine line between early specialization, being a kid and encouraging other sports.
As you probably realize, I come from a snowboarding background, so much of what I have seen comes from that experience, but I think its practicalities apply to ALL sports!
- Look for crossover sports that can still be linked to the athlete’s one sport of the passion, but provide the kid to build athletic skills in other sports. In snowboarding, for example, look at gymnastics, trampolining, surfing, skateboarding. For those team sports kids out there, look at other team sports that have similar concepts and help to build team work and co-operation in those athletes.
- Focus on stoking the kids out on skill development and acquisition rather than results. This will help keep the stoke factor up and the burn out factor down. Kid’s at young ages are not developmentally ready to have to deal with a finite win and loss EVERY single week. Yes, it is super important to bring competition in and use as a learning experience, but at this tender age, it does not need to be the most important piece.
- Limit directed training. This too can lead to burn out! Once again, kids don’t have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Sneak learning up on them, enjoy the “doing” of the sport! Mileage is key!
- Check your technical language. With young crew, for example, I try not to call any session I have with the kid “training”…rather, I call it “sessioning”. It makes it more fun, seem less tedious and less like work. Remember, keep those kids pumped! (this seems to work with athletes of ALL ages!)
- Encourage participation….snow time does not always need a coach! This goes for team sports as well. Kids learn best, while young from doing. So a kid who is singularly focused on basketball does not need to be with a coach or in summer camps all the time. Just out bouncing the ball, taking shots and playing with friends can be just as beneficial and important. Coaches can help by encouraging this by length and regularity of training times.
- Limit competition and go heavier on skills building. Yes, competition is an important part of what we do, but the general rule is the younger the athlete, the less important competition is. Look for fun events, reward effort and progression. They will plenty of time to compete as they move thru their competition lives. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture!
- Share the stoke, don’t be the coach! Encourage your kid to enjoy the sport, but allow your child to have ownership of their sport. Let the coach do his or her job!
- Communication with your child’s coach so you are all on the same page.
- Kids need to be kids. Don’t let the whole family units life be determined and driven by youth sports. Take them on holidays, enjoy other activities….make sure your provide balance for your child regardless of talent level.
- As with coaches, encourage cross over activities that your kid realizes will help there area of emphasis, but will also have them involved in a new activity, increase sociability and keep them happy!
- Be the master of the high five! Reward your child’s efforts, look for the positives. This is critically important in competitions. For young athletes, a loss can be devastating…so be that rock for you child! As John Lennon says; “All you need is love!”
It is awesome to have a child super focused and self motivated with regards to sport. Its not a passion you want to crush, BUT…..it is something that needs to be managed to so that we have happy, stoked and well adjusted kids.
Hopefully you can use some of these ideas if you are the coach or parent of an outlier, Good luck!