Not competing at a young age can be a good thing

NGBs should delay competition for their youngest athletes.

Youngsters are starting athletic competition too early, so to create a better athlete development environment NGBs should start competition for their youngest, newest athletes at a later age.

How many times have you heard that or something like it? Do you agree or not, and why? Sport practitioners who work with new athletes have a unique opportunity to shape their sport's future by helping youngsters experience a thoughtful introduction to the sport. Part of this means considering whether or not competition for young age groups is appropriate. For most of us this means thinking about ways to improve our own sport's competitive structure. What age should they start? How young is too young? What should a competition for youngsters look like?

Many NGBs follow a single model of training and competition where everything looks the same regardless of age. Some have modified their competitive formats with lower goals in basketball, smaller courts in tennis, and, of course, tee ball, but most sports simply copy formats for older athletes and use them for the younger crowd with a same-but-less setup. These changes are superficial. The question of whether younger athletes should be competing at all is unanswered but this is primarily because it's never asked.

Reducing or eliminating competition for youngsters is not easy since there's no consensus that it's even necessary. But the more we try to make a youth sport look like its big time counterpart, the more we rob youngsters of an enjoyable and transformative experience. Competition and sport seem inseparable but that's because it's expected i.e. without the competitive element it's not really sport. However, if we treat competition like other training elements such as weight training, psychological preparation, and nutritional education, then we would have a new training stimulus to add at the appropriate time rather than throwing everything into the mix right from the start. This would help keep the entire experience fresh and give athletes something to look forward to as they increased skills and became more invested in the activity.

There is research showing that youngsters do not respond well to competition; the pressure is unnecessary, it can lead to negative feelings, and is destructive to self esteem. One study done in an educational setting reported that competition does little to motivate kids. Researchers looked at high- and low-stakes testing in mathematics. Two high schools awarded special ID cards to students who scored well on a standardized test. The result was that the ID card award provided little motivation for lower-achieving students and only served to highlight the inequality and division among students. Sport practitioners are familiar with this scenario in a group of young athletes with varying rates of growth and maturity.

On the other hand, competition provides opportunities for children to learn skills that will be important later in life. These are skills like resilience, perseverance, and tenacity. Depending on the sport they may also learn about teamwork and helping others.

It's important to understand that competition per se is not bad for kids, it's the pressure and hype that adult organized events inevitably create. The more ballyhoo involved with travel, money spent, calling events championship this and that, not to mention the time involved, the more pressure there is. Many parents and coaches bristle when this is mentioned and argue that they don't pressure their child or their athletes. But it's silly to think that kids don't notice when the family vacation revolves around Junior attending a sports event. Or that the next piece of flashy equipment comes at the cost of a good performance in the next competition. Adult-created pressure on young athletes may be indirect or inadvertent but it's there nonetheless.

When should competition begin?

Competition is an important part of the athlete development process, adding it to the developmental mix should be done deliberately and not left up to the "that's how we've always done it" mindset. A decision depends on at least three factors: Individual vs. team activity, sport specialization characteristics, and athlete maturity.

One argument is that if youngsters don't learn to compete now (meaning at an early age) they'll just have to learn it later. Well, of course they will. That's the whole point of development. Learn the basics before moving on to something more complex. But that argument implies that if they don't compete now then somehow they will be behind when they do start to compete. That's just not true.

Individual or team activity?

Organized competition in team sports should be delayed until athletes have acquired the skills needed to play the game and gained an understanding of what the game is about (game sense or strategy). This can be developed in training activities and mock competitions within teams or clubs without going the organized, league play route.

Competition in individual sports should be delayed until it starts to make developmental sense. No 10-year-old holds a World Record, and in many late-specialization sports there is no correlation between early and later success. In other words, an athletically challenged 10-year-old who somehow manages to place last in everything has just as good a chance of being a top performer later on as his 10-year-old hot shot colleague. The reasons for this are explained in this article.

Type of sport: Early- or late-specialization?

Sports that require early specialization will probably start some form of organized competition earlier than late-specialization activities. Sports that are judged tend to require early specialization. This includes activities like figure skating, diving, and gymnastics. The key is that in early-specialization activities the skills themselves are the sport, so learning skills from an early age matters. Skills are important in other sports as well but they are not the determining factor in a decisive performance.

Late specialization sports depend on physical and metabolic factors like strength, stamina, and speed in addition to skills. They are measured rather than judged. This is where the term 'CGS sports' comes from, meaning that they are measured in centimeters, grams, and seconds.

Additionally, all team sports are late specialization sports.

But even if a sport requires early specialization it does not automatically mean that competition at a young age is appropriate. That is determined for all sports by the second consideration.

Athlete maturity

Once the athlete has acquired the necessary skills, the second consideration is to understand what competition actually means in that activity. At what age do athletic ability and cognitive understanding meet? In individual sports this occurs a little before 12 years of age, in team sports it's later. Sports that organize competitions for children younger than that, 8-year-olds, for example, are not achieving the development they're looking for and instead may end up driving some of those youngsters out of the sport.

What can be done?

The problem: In many youth sport programs children are starting organized competition too early, before they have proper skills to compete, and before they understand what competition means. The solution: Raise the age where competition is organized and encouraged. Only an NGB can make such a change to the competitive environment in a sport, it can't be done in clubs or even regionally. If it's not a national change it won't be effective. This is a good example of how the governing body can use soft power to make a change that will, most likely, face a stiff headwind.

Implementation: Younger athletes (12 years old or less) would compete in a single competitive age group. All athletes in this age range would be welcome to compete but younger children would be competing against athletes as old as 12, so their motivation to join competitions would be diminished. Also, since they would be competing against older athletes the pressure to perform would be lessened, and parental and coach expectations would shift to appropriate developmental rather than competitive outcomes.

All national reward schemes would be modified to track only the new 12 & under age group. There would no longer be any recognition program for age groups younger than that. This recognizes athletes at a point in their career when success starts to make a difference. Recognition tracking for athletes younger than 12 (9- or 10-year-olds, for example) doesn't make sense developmentally and adds pressure on youngsters to perform.

Note: For this to work both the age group and the recognition scheme have to change at the same time. It's not one or the other or one now and one later. It's both. Together.

To really understand why this is a developmental bonanza, think about how an 8-year-old would move through this system. If he chose to compete in the 12 & under age group as an 8-year-old, then for the first two years he would be dabbling in something that would only really become important later on. But perhaps his coach would like to see how well he performs in competition. This is easily done with Junior able to concentrate on the coach's instructions rather than forgetting everything in a fog of competitive anxiety. He's pretty sure he's not going to win, but no one expects him to. He gradually learns to race in an environment where his place at the finish doesn't really matter yet. As he gets older both his performance and place improve and eventually he's one of the older athletes in the age group. He knows the sport, he knows how to compete, and he has had time to build his skills without undue pressure and expectation. And he's getting to this point at the precise time when it starts to make a difference. This is what athlete development is all about, rather than the hit or miss, survival of the fittest many sports have now.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.