Does the development of our youth have anything to do with their future athletic success?
Shouldn't the head sport coach run all the youth training programs? Isn't he the expert on youth sports?
What effect does parent involvement and early specialization have on a young child's "love of the game?"
If you're a parent, coach, teacher, or anyone else involved in youth sports, knowing the answers to these questions is crucial to the athletic development of our youth...
Why Youth Athlete Development?
Where did my interest in youth athletes come from?
As you can see from the video to the right, I love playing with my younger brother, Cameron. Not only does the kid love to play sports, but he also loves to study sports. Watching him grow up and develop into quite the athlete for a 7 year old has sparked my interest on how to optimally develop our youth.
Combine having a younger brother involved in every sport possible to my recent work as a strength coach at a local high school in Lexington, and my study of long term youth athlete development is born. I am not quite an "expert" in youth development, but I'm determined to get there!
Here is what I know...
What Are The Current Issues in Youth Sports?
As the video says above, parents have a major influence on the success of their children when it comes to youth sports. Some of the issues that arise include:
>Over-emphasis on winning
>Holding unrealistic expectations
>Coaching one's own child
>Criticizing one's own child
>Pampering one's child too much
Parents often don't realize the role they play when it comes to motivation, enjoyment, perceived competence, and length of involvement. Even though I believe that most parents have the best interest of their child in mind, they just don't know how to go about developing them (from an athletic perspective).
Do I tell little Susie to do the same things I did when I was in high school back in 1979?
Do I have little Johnny attend every single baseball camp in the summer?
What about a weight training program? Is the head (insert sport) coach certified as a strength specialist?
Is not knowing the optimal way to develop their youth child the parents fault? I say not entirely. It is impossible to take parents out of the youth development equation though. Therefore, developing a universal guide for them to follow (easily!) is of great benefit.
Is the best interest of our youth athletes always kept in mind? Or is long term development sometimes compromised in order to win in the short term?
For those of you reading this who have coached a youth sport, you understand the pressure placed on you to not only win, but to make sure everyone plays. Talk about challenging! This is why I believe that coaches at the youth level will sometimes prioritize short-term success (winning) over long term development (teaching movement/sport skills).
Don't get me wrong, I love winning, but just not at the expense of compromising youth athletes' development.
Youth sports would not exist if it wasn't for volunteers. If you are a volunteer to a youth sport, I commend you. You deserve it.
That being said, how much education do most volunteers have on the developmental principles of kids? Do they understand the variance in maturity levels at different ages as well as the sensitive periods children go through as they develop? What about how to teach proper movement patterns at various age levels?
My guess is probably not.
This is NOT a knock on volunteer coaches, but rather making it known that if you coach a youth sport, the way YOU coach/teach/train your athletes will ultimately set them up for success (or failure) later in their athletic careers. It's THAT IMPORTANT.
Where do the best coaches coach? Elite levels. So unless you're willing to bring in Coach K, Izzo, or one of the Harbaugh brothers to coach elementary basketball and football, educating current coaches is a must. This can be accomplished in the same guide that is given to parents on youth athlete development.
3) Early Specialization
Unless your child's sport of choice is gymnastics, figure skating, or table tennis, specializing in one sport at a young age will NOT produce greater performances in the future.
There is a ton of literature out there stating the drawbacks of specializing in one sport before the age of 15. The physical, psychological, and social development of a child is impaired when they focus all of their efforts on one sport early in their athletic careers. Not to mention a higher injury (overuse) rate and burnout (quitting) rate.
Intuitively, it seems like the earlier one can specialize in a specific sport, the better they will be at that sport. The question is, how do we identify which sport your child will excel at?
In the book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell talks about the "January Effect." Basically , the "January Effect" is the concept of kids that are born early in the year seem more talented compared to those kids born in the later months.
Is this a cause and effect relationship? Hardly. The difference of a couple months on maturity levels is HUGE. Is the best player on your son's team the most talented? Or is he just more mature?
Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, and Mozart specialized. They are exceptions. There will always be exceptions.
Let me repeat: early specialization is not a good thing.
This is where the focus of my presentation will be. Developing a model for teachers, coaches, parents, and athletes that outline the proper training protocols throughout each stage of youth development.
Right now, I believe that our youth OVER-compete and UNDER-train. It is more important to parents, coaches, etc. for youth athletes to develop specific sport skills rather than develop movement skills. This should not be the case.
"Players need to learn the game, not a position. Individual development is the foundation."
Rather than teaching the flex offense in basketball, teach youth athletes how to decide which way to dribble or cut. Help them to "read" the defense, not just follow your commands.
Make them better athletes, not better at the x's and o's. That's the coaches job.
From first-hand experience, the training careers of most athletes are fragmented. What I mean by that, is the majority of youth are passed from one sport coach to the next (football season, then basketball, then baseball).
Do any of these coaches worry about teaching proper movement patterns? Or are they more concerned with developing the specific sport skills in their particular sport? My guess is the latter, but it should be the former. Again, not necessarily their fault, it just needs to be addressed. And soon.
I made this category a subsection of "Practice/Training" because I believe injuries are a direct result of how our youth practice/train/prepare. Spending more time on sport skills and less time on learning the competencies of basic movement, over-competing and under-training, and specializing in one sport (thus playing year round), all put our youth at risk of injury.
30-45 million youth play a sport. Many of which are involved in multiple sports. 10-15 million, or 1/3 of those participants become injured and seek medical attention.
One-third! Not to mention most of these (30-50%) are overuse injuries...
A study was published citing the top five reasons why youth athletes become injured. They include:
1. Adolescent growth spurts
2. Development of motor skills
3. Training practices
4. Differential growth of bones and connective tissues
5. Bone maturation
Can we control any of these? Not completely. BUT- I say we can highly influence #'s 2 and 3. Here is how...
"Long Term Youth Athlete Development" model (LTAD)
Developed by Dr. Istvan Balyi, the LTAD model is currently being used in Canada, as well as other countries in Europe.
As you can see from the photo to the right, LTAD is composed of seven stages, each one considering the maturational status of the child. The LTAD model was created on the basis of "windows of opportunity," or periods more sensitive to certain types of training stimuli during development.
Another way to think of the "window of opportunity" theory is doing the right thing at the right time. For example, at age "X," it is the best time to train for "X" skill.
As you can see from the graph to the left, there are certain changes that children go through during development. (x-axis "age," y-axis is % developed)
The purple "neural" curve represents a huge increase in the development of the brain and motor control capabilities. Just like we teach kids a second language at a young age, we too should be teaching them how to dip, duck, dodge, roll, squat, lunge, balance, skip, bound, jump, land, hinge, etc.
The graph below represents the peak height velocity (PHV) curve for girls and boys. Note that the downward slope simply indicates that rate at which a child is growing is decreasing while an upward slope (specifically ages 11-14) indicates a higher rate of growth.
Why is this important? The LTAD model bases its stages off of the PHV time periods. PHV corresponds with puberty; the beginning of adolescents. It's important to recognize this because this stage consists of many new changes to an athletes' body, thus training needs to change as well.
The Importance of Physical Literacy
Human development from birth to adulthood is a continuous process. To understand the process better, experts divide human development into distinct stages with specific characteristics; these are called stages of development.
In the LTAD model, experts have identified seven stages of development, each with its own physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive
“Physical literacy gives children the tools they need to take part in healthy life-long enjoyment and for sporting success; and is a key component of the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) program.
In part II of the LTAD model, I will jump into the seven stages of development as well as providing examples of games, training focus, etc.
In the meantime, check out the International Youth Conditioning Association (click here) as well as the Canadian Sport for Life (click here) for additional information. I will provide links to handouts for parents, coaches, and athletes at the end of part II, so make sure to come back when it's posted!
***Here is part II of this article***