American pop culture loves to promote the great achievements of successful young athletes. We celebrate the accomplishments of Little League World Series stars and teenage Olympic champions. We have watched youth sports prodigies such as Tiger Woods and Serena Williams grow from child superstars to top professionals, and think, "Great, my kid can do that, too!"
But can they? And what is the best path to pursue elite sport performance, while ensuring sport remains a positive experience for kids?
Sports should be a wonderful pursuit for all children. Under the right conditions kids can not only develop athleticism, but also learn about life. They can build character, learn to overcome challenges, and develop grit, integrity, and the ability to work with others in pursuit of a common goal. Participation in sports can be one of the most rewarding parts of childhood.. when done the right way.
All too often these days, sports are not a positive, rewarding experience for our children. There are numerous kids for whom early sport specialization and inappropriate adult-centered environments lead not to elite athletic performance, but to physical and emotional scars that may last a lifetime.
For many kids, their parent's dreams of glory become an all too real youth sports nightmare. This needs to change.
Visit most any sports sideline, or tune in to shows such as "Friday Night Tykes" and "The Short Game," and you see coaches and parents treating young children like mini-adults. They scream at them for mistakes. They take all enjoyment of sports away unless their child wins. They only let them play a single sport. They think they are parenting the next superstar, but in reality they are ruining youth sports for their kids.
Many parents are simply scared. They have had coaches tell them that unless their child goes all in on one sport early in elementary school, there is no chance of a scholarship. They fear that if they do not provide their kids with private coaching, the most expensive equipment and drive them relentlessly toward sporting success, they are letting their kids down and failing as parents.
As a result we have seen the emergence of a darker side of youth sports, one where parents and coaches compete and pursue fame and fortune through their kids, and often in spite of their kids' wishes and intentions.
When they do, more often than not the sporting experience does not end well. In the words of renowned sports psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Jim Taylor, "Sports are metaphorically littered with the scarred psyches of children whose parents tried and failed to do what Earl Woods and Richard Williams succeeded at doing."
This is sad, because there is a far better path.
Early specialization is not the only path to stardom
Dr. Joe Baker is a Sport Scientist from York University in Canada. He is one of the world's leading researchers into the subject of early sport specialization. Through his work he sees firsthand how thousands of hours of dedicated training can lead to elite performance on a world stage.
He also sees the physical, emotional and social fallout for tens of thousands of children, caused by parents pursuing glory for their kids, and through their kids, but not in fulfillment of the dreams and ambitions of their kids.
This is not to say that practice does not make for better performance; it does. Yet there is little evidence that the benefits of increased hours at very young ages remain long term. It leads to short term success, not long term performance.
In a 2003 study of professional ice hockey players, researchers found that although most players had over 10,000 hours of sports participation by the age of 20, only 3,000 of those hours were in hockey specific deliberate training. Only 450 of those hours occurred before the age of 12. These elite hockey players had thousands of hours of free play in hockey, as well as over 2,000 hours of participation in sports other than hockey. This was not the Tiger Woods path.
There is also a great deal of science on the detrimental effects of early specialization.
According to a 2013 study by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University, those athletes who specialized early were 70 to 93 percent more likely to get injured than those who played multiple sports. Other studies found higher rates of burnout, usually due to lack of enjoyment, amongst early specializers.
Dr. Baker has also seen emerging evidence that children who specialize early in one sport eventually give up sports all together. "While the evidence is limited because it is very hard to track," says Baker, "we are seeing some research that says early specializers become less healthy adults because they give up on all forms of physical activity. While a lot more research needs to be done, this may be the most damming evidence of all if it's proven to be accurate."
Utopia vs. reality
Experts generally agree that sports such as women's figure skating and gymnastics require many hours at a young age because these athletes reach their peak in their teenage years. For the vast majority of sports, though, athletes do not peak until their 20s. In soccer, hockey, basketball, football and baseball, while an early introduction is often beneficial, unorganized play and hours of multi-sport participation have been shown to not only prevent injury and burnout, but supplement pattern recognition and development in a child's chosen sport.
Unfortunately, many parents today are scared. They face the conflict between a utopian, multi-sport childhood for their children, and the realities of the current American youth sports culture. Large financial commitments and nearly year round participation at elementary school ages are required in order to remain with top teams and coaches. Parents are faced with the hard choice between allowing their children to find their own passion and the fear that if they wait too long, the window for proper coaching and elite performance will have already closed.
As a result, numerous well-intentioned parents are taking the early sport specialization track. Injury rates and severity are on the rise. Seventy percent of children quit organized sports by the age of 13, and overall participation numbers in youth sports are dropping at an alarming rate. Among the reasons given are early specialization, overuse injuries, lack of enjoyment, and the pressure to win and find elite athletes at younger and younger ages.
What is a parent to do?
If you are the parent of a young athlete, and you want sports to be a beneficial part of your child's early years, there is hope. According to Dr. Baker, first and foremost you must ensure the following three characteristics are part of your child's youth sports experience:
- Autonomy: The experience must belong to your child. It must be in fulfillment of your child's goals and ambitions, not yours.
- Enjoyment: Without enjoyment, play and fun, talent matters very little. A child who does not enjoy a sport will rarely pursue it long enough to be good at it.
- Intrinsic Motivation: The athlete must be the one out of bed and excited to train and play. The athlete must be the one setting goals and challenging herself. "Intrinsic motivation is the currency of athletic development," says Baker. "If they don't have it, it is very hard to give it to them."
If you think you have the next superstar living under your roof, do not be scared. You won't be letting him down by following his lead instead of forcing him down a path of your choosing. Elite athletes must love what they are doing. They must make mistakes and learn from them. They must have intrinsic motivation. They must play sports, not work them! And they need parents who support them on their journey, instead of pursuing their own dreams through their child.
Helping your child find something he is passionate about, instead of determining it for him, is the most likely pathway to a successful sports experience. Let him try many sports, and treat him like a child, not a mini-adult! When you do, you provide more enjoyment and autonomy, decreased injury risk and higher continued participation rates.
Better yet, it does not preclude elite performance later in life, and in fact may enhance the chances of your child playing at a high level through the development of a better all around athlete.
Most importantly, it is far more likely to produce well-adjusted kids who excel in both sport and life. As Coach Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching states, "Your child's success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting."
If they become an elite athlete as well, that's simply the icing on the cake.
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