Debriefing 2022: Takeaways from the archives

A curated list of topics impacting youth sport right now or in the near future.

As I wind up this newsletter for 2022 I want to briefly mention some things that make a difference in youth sport that practitioners probably don't think about too often, or for which they might not appreciate the implications. Sometimes we forget about these things because they seem insignificant or cliche. We know them but don't really take the time to consider what they mean because we've heard them all before. I realize that the end of a calendar year is smack in the middle of the competition season for many sports, but it's still a good time to spend a few minutes thinking about some of the bigger topics that affect the youth sport institution.

These topics have all been addressed in this letter during the past year. The list below is curated but not in any particular order. If you have any big idea topics please comment below. I'm always interested in hearing what others think is important to sport development.

Will they come back tomorrow?

Athletes are self-selecting, so when youngsters join an organized sport program it means they already have an interest in it, thus a big part of keeping them involved means not scaring them away. Unfortunately this is harder than it sounds. All the benefits we associate with youth sports depend on a youngster becoming invested through long term participation. Once invested, athletes will have built strong relationships with other athletes, their coaches, and experienced some degree of improvement or success. After each training session, coaches who are confident young athletes will come back tomorrow are doing what they need to do to help youngsters become invested in the activity.

Young athletes are different people from year to year

Coaches have heard many times that children are not just small adults. This is often understood figuratively but it is true in a literal sense. In addition to all the other ways they're not adults, youngsters are limited by when and how well they learn physical skills, something that is at the heart of sport development.

As we all know, in any group of young athletes there are a few who seem to learn skills quickly and become proficient before their peers. Precocious youngsters are often viewed as having a gift or a talent for the sport when, in reality, it is just a normal part of the growth process. Children learn to walk, talk, and tie their own shoes at different rates without parents believing they have a prodigy on their hands. The same should be true for how we understand sport skills. Children learn sport skills at different times; precocity is not an indication of talent.

Early vs. late maturing athletes

Youth sport has a development trajectory that some practitioners and parents use to determine an athlete's "viability" in a sport. The assumption is that If a youngster hasn't reached recognized milestones by a certain age then it might be time to look for a different activity. But the prototypical path does not and cannot take into account the growth and maturity timelines of individual athletes, thus judgements about success or lack of it are premature.

Early maturers stand out, they're bigger, stronger, faster; they're who everyone notices first. But the qualities that cause early maturers to be noticed are short-lived and soon later maturing athletes catch up and differences due to earlier growth disappear. The point is that like a good wine, athletes need time to mature before anyone knows who will excel.

Participation is trending downward

Individual sports present their own unique participation trends, up one year and down the next, but youth sport participation overall is trending downward. Reasons for this vary -- and the pandemic has exacerbated some of these -- but a few obvious ones include:

  • Time - families found other ways to spend time during the pandemic. Now that the pandemic is over some are using time they invested previously in youth sport participation for other things.
  • Cost - the cost of youth sport participation continues to rise. This is not new and each year more athletes are eliminated from youth sport programs simply because their families can't afford it. As an increasing number of youngsters are denied opportunities to participate, youth sport will lose the egalitarian perception we have of it now. It will become a mostly upper class phenomenon.
  • Early specialization - There are good reasons athletes should not specialize early. One of them is that youngsters who specialize in one sport don't participate in others. By gradually shifting a traditionally multi-sport experience to a mostly single-sport one, athleticism within the athlete pool is significantly reduced. Time and convenience are powerful social factors influencing this shift; families that find an acceptable youth sport outlet are reluctant to look for others merely for the sake of playing different sports.
  • Loss of interest - The Aspen Institute's recent 2022 State of Play report notes that interest in playing youth sports overall is waning. However, the good news is that participation in some sports is either back to what it was prior to the pandemic or is getting close.

A youth sport "career" is a single periodization cycle that does not reoccur

Sport training consists of several periodization cycles per season. Coaches plan their seasons by counting weeks on the calendar and scheduling all the necessary training elements to produce optimum performance by the end of the season. This planning is repeated yearly or whatever the appropriate macro cycle may be.

With this planning methodology in mind, can the entire youth sport experience be frame-worked so that the first 10 years or so of an athlete's participation includes all developmental components? Youth sport, if one understands it as a phase of life -- think childhood or adolescence -- is nothing more than a giant periodization scheme. There is one big difference though: The youth sport experience does not reoccur. Each stage of a young athlete's life is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The fertility rate in developed countries is below replacement level

In an earlier article I described falling fertility rates as a slow moving tsunami. This is not a sport specific phenomenon; however, it will have a significant effect on youth sport. In a few years there will be fewer children to join youth sport programs, and the global economic effects of a lower tax base and growing dependency ratios due to increasing older populations will cause a reduction of funding for sport programs.

That's my list. What do you think?