People are in such a rush, and who can blame them? We hear about athletes committing to college scholarships as early as 7th grade. It is hard not to find a new 9-year-old athletic sensation on YouTube. However, rushing the athlete development process has its detrimental effects. The headlines are filled with stories of the few players who are the exception and truly develop early. As the legend of these stories grows, it moves from exception to expectations. We rarely hear the stories of the ones who were prodigies at a young age but never panned out. Nobody wants to hear about the athlete who makes it through the normal process of development although most people fall into this category. It seems more often we consider these athletes to be “late bloomers” when in reality they are “normal bloomers.” We have gotten so accustomed to chasing the early developers that we have lost perspective on the real path to development.
“Childhood is moving quickly from a time of exploration and discovery to a pre-professional training environment. Rather than encourage children to play on their own and engage in self-discovery, parents set appointments with pitching, goalie or shooting coaches to train their offspring so their child can keep pace with the perceived status quo.” – learntocoachbasketball.com
Specialization and Over Training
I have discussed my opinions on specialization in a previous post, but I will continue down this path. Specialization leads to over training, and it is detrimental to young athletes both physically and mentally. Players run the risk of early burnout and overuse injuries. They feel the effects of pressure placed on them to be successful. Let me tell you a story Jon and his son Ryan.
The Story of Ryan
Jon is a parent of a 10-year-old hockey player, Ryan. Jon played some college hockey and has hopes that one day his son will follow in his footsteps. Jon shows up to a game and sees a group of players who are beyond his son. He starts thinking, how do we catch up? Maybe we should practice more. Maybe we need to play more games. We need to move up to play a higher level of competition to be with better players and accelerate development. Soon the commitment to the sport increases. Jon is now driving his son to a rink 3 days a week for practice and about 60 games all over North America. Now we begin to see the results and we are closing the gap. Ryan is doing great, and he is on the best AAA team in the area. Ryan is now working with a personal trainer 2 times a week to develop his speed, quickness, agility, and strength. It’s time to sign up for spring hockey. Ryan is on two teams who will play in a combined 6 spring tournaments . He will be participating in clinics 2 times a week until July 1. Now July brings an opportunity to go to an elite training camp in addition to a few skills clinics that will get him ready for the season which will start in August. Ryan had to quit baseball and soccer because the commitment to his 14U team did not allow another sport. Ryan just finished his 14U season on one of the top 10 youth teams in the United States. Ryan is now in high school, and he is worried because a couple of his friends are getting phone calls from other teams. Some of the other players who were behind Ryan in the development race are catching up. One just went on a college visit. Ryan is wondering why nobody is calling him. He was one of the best 14-year-old players in the area on one of the best teams in the country and now other guys who never made his team are getting the recognition. Doubt is beginning to take over.
What happened? Over training happened. Athletes who specialize too early peak at a younger age. Their development hits a ceiling because they lack the athleticism and creativity that is necessary to move past their development plateau. The “late bloomers” start to take over the game.
You can read this and think that this is just a good piece of fiction. I can tell you that i have met Ryan over 100 times in my career. I have coached Ryan more times than I want to admit. You can read all about the Long Term Athlete Development Plan. It has been adopted by the governing bodies of sport around the world, and it is widely known as the most scientific and most effective development plan for athletes of any sport. Ask yourself, do we want to have the best 13-year-old athlete or the best 18-year-old athlete? When do we want our athletes to peak?
Playing Up and Skipping Grades
Let’s think about this. If your child was in eighth grade you would not push the student immediately to 11th grade. There are numerous studies that show the effects of rushing through school both socially and mentally in a young person. On a similar note, a student should not jump to calculus if they have never taken algebra. Even if they find a way to keep their head above water, they are not learning, and they have no chance for real success. You see, there is a difference between graduating and getting an education. Which do you think is more important?
The risks associated at sport are no different. However, just like at school all students are different. Some are taking advanced placement courses while others are taking regular course load, and some are in elementary level courses. We section students based on ability and try to group them so that they fit in the correct category. We like to put students of similar ability together to increase learning so that students push each other along through the process and create a stronger foundation. Sports are the same as some players are more advanced. Some players have grown earlier and are able to handle greater physical challenges. Others may have a high skill level. These players may be the advanced placement students. Most players are in the normal path, and others are delayed in their growth and development. Each athlete needs to be placed in the proper development plan so that they may give themselves the greatest opportunity for success. By accelerating the process too early players run the risk of injury, low self-esteem, doubts about their game, and their skills plateau. Just like in education, there is a difference between moving up and developing. As in life, we all develop at our own pace, and no path is the right path.
We get so focused on trying to develop a great player that we forget to first develop a great athlete. At some point, if players continue to excel, training and specialized coaching may be necessary. However, don’t be too quick to leap into this world. We are quick to train our athletes as mini-professionals and forget that they are children who should be exploring their passions and enjoying their youth.