For sport parents: A 30,000 foot view of the youth sport experience

It's easy to miss the big picture of youth sport because we're often overwhelmed with the technical stuff

I've been involved in sport coaching and teaching for over 30 years and though I don't speak from experience, I would guess that coaches in every sport get the same kind of questions from parents that I did as a swimming coach regarding their child's participation or technical progress. Technical details are important, of course, but in this article I want to answer questions parents usually don't ask but need answers to anyway.

Sport practitioners tend to believe that their sport is different from others or that the way they do something is specific only to their sport. This may be true at elite levels. But in youth sports it's not the specifics that make a difference, it's understanding that the young athletes they're working with are constantly growing and changing; that the youngster you're working with this season is not the same person they were last season. This is not metaphor, it is literally true in a physical sense. Experienced coaches recognize this and are able to reconcile these changes with the goal of keeping athletes involved long enough to make a difference. And to make sure that they learn the skills and strategies they will need for later participation.

Parents of athletes in youth sport programs will eventually hear a lot about periodization of training. The youth sport years are, themselves, a giant periodization process. Unlike training periods, which repeat seasonally, the youth sport process can only occur once, and success depends on getting it right the first and only time.

So here are some tips for youth sport parents:

There is no pathway to success

While no sport has a step-by-step pathway from novice to high performance, there are stages of athlete development that make success more likely. Several of the existing models such as the Canadian Sport for Life and the American Development Model, describe these stages and highlight when they occur in the development period. Toddlers don't learn to walk, talk, and do math at the same time and neither do athletes; look over the models and prepare for the long haul.

Is your club creating an environment that encourages long-term participation?

Practitioners are fond of saying that youth sport should be fun. You may think this is obvious but you may also wonder if having fun is really worth the money you're paying. Fun is hard to define, and sometimes having fun and wasting time look the same. But the one sure-fire ingredient to athletic success is long-term participation. The longer a child is involved in sport the more likely he will be successful. If youth sport athletes aren't having fun then why would they want to participate?

The best clue that you can use to determine if your child enjoys the experience is the level of enthusiasm for the next practice. As a coach I can not teach skills nor can I train anyone if they don't come to my practices, so the primary goal of a youth sport coach is to get youngsters to come back tomorrow. If they're not at practice then nothing else matters.

The best sport clubs create an environment where learning can take place, where interest in the sport can lead to a passion for training and improvement, and where youngsters look forward to each new practice session. Without this environment the chance of long-term participation and thus future success is reduced.

Don't focus on whether your child is talented or not

Precocious ability can almost always be traced to early opportunity. A piano in the home or a pool in the backyard easily explain why a child might seem more musically inclined or swim better than their same-age peers. Precocity in sport skills is usually explainable by opportunity. We often misidentify early ability as talent because we don't know about the backyard pool or the piano.

Additionally, some youngsters just mature faster than others. Early maturers develop strength, speed, and stamina sooner than other children. Parents are well aware of the differences between early- vs. late-maturing youngsters -- changes to weight, height, and overall size are obvious -- but they may not be familiar with how these changes apply to sport. So when earlier maturation produces better athletic performance it is often mistaken for talent.

Early maturing children will have an advantage over later maturing youngsters because they're bigger, stronger, faster, and their motor coordination is slightly ahead of their peers. However these differences tend to disappear as late maturers catch up with their early maturing comrades.

Young athletes should be learning, not training

One of the biggest challenges with youth sport programs, especially in larger clubs, is that the youngest athletes are sometimes trained in the same way as older and more experienced athletes. Young athletes should be learning more than training. Once learned, motor skills are persistent, they're yours for life. You may get a little rusty if you don't do them often but you won't forget them. Learning motor skills happens best at young ages (similar to the way we learn languages).

I wrote previously that in many sport clubs the youngest athletes are used to generate cash; more younger athletes equal a healthy bottom line. This sometimes leads to younger athletes training more than they are learning, since training a large group is easier than teaching a large group. This is something to watch out for in your club. Skills form the bedrock of all future athletic success.

Physical attributes like height, weight, and arm span are fixed -- there's not much anyone can do about them -- but almost everything else can be learned and is trainable

It's undeniable that at elite performance levels certain physical attributes are advantages in some sports. For example, professional basketballers are taller than average; Olympic gymnasts are smaller. Athletes at the elite level have similar skill sets, so advantages in performance sometimes depend on physical attributes. In other words, being tall doesn’t make you a good basketball player, but it does help you stand out among athletes with similar abilities. Physical attributes and athletic ability (skills) are not the same thing.

At developmental levels physical size and weight are also factors but for a much different reason. As mentioned above growth happens at different rates and while some athletes may be stronger, faster, or heavier than others these advantages do not last.

If your child is a late maturer it's best to try and ignore the temporary disadvantage they may have when competing against early maturers. Concentrate instead on learning the skills needed to be successful in the sport.

If your child is an early maturer they may be having success without proper attention to learning skills. Try to keep them focused on what they will need when their late maturing peers begin to catch up physically.

There are other meta items affecting youth sport and athlete development in general that I will write about in later newsletters. These are a few of what I consider the most important.