Growing young athletes is more complex than you think
Matt Bowers, PhD
| 5 min read
Kids are not mini adults.
Sounds simple, but it’s something that adults really struggle to understand.
Whether it’s well-meaning (but overzealous) coaches trying to install a triangle offense on a 10-year-old rec basketball team, or parents who have their 6-year-old breaking down game film, adults have a difficult time wrapping our heads around what kids actually need to learn a sport.
For most young athletes, development is not a linear progression with a 10,000-hour countdown clock attached to it. It’s a lot messier than that.
To that point, here is a quick rundown of three of the most common ways that I see well-meaning (but overzealous) parents doing more harm than good when it comes to a child’s development as an athlete.
Have you ever seen a kid who looks like the next Alex Morgan at soccer practice? It could be that she was always destined for the USWNT. But the more likely explanation is that she’s trained and practiced at levels that dwarf other kids.
When we mistake a training differential for a talent differential, we coach and cheer and talk in ways that only further reinforce that gap. It may seem harmless — or even encouraging — when another parent says, of your daughter, “She’s a born striker!” But such off-hand labels can undermine the development of work ethic and psychological coping mechanisms for the “talented” kids and make late-bloomers or less-trained young athletes feel that they don’t intrinsically have the ability to be great.
If you’re born with it, how do you develop and grow? If you weren’t born with it, why try?
You can’t speed up development by having kids do what professional athletes do.
It’s as basic as equipment. Making 7-year-olds shoot on 10-foot hoops with full-size basketballs doesn’t make them more likely to be stars. In general, it just makes them more likely to develop long-term bio-mechanical disadvantages based on the technique they use to compensate for their totally-normal inability to properly execute a jump shot at this stage.
The same thinking drives parents to push kids to become hyper-specialized or to adopt the all-in, year-round approach of elite athletes.
Yet, across virtually any sport — and the more participants and balls involved, the bigger the effect — having a less-specialized, more diversified approach to training, and mixing in different sports and rest at different times in the year, has more benefit in the long-run. Kobe Bryant didn’t become Kobe Bryant because his parents had him practicing the triangle offense he would later flourish in when he was a kid; he flourished because he also played soccer and learned to pass and move in the natural triangles that soccer creates.
As adults, we tend to think that progress comes from focused training in structured environments, and that’s true to a certain extent. But we often fail to recognize how beneficial unstructured play is for a developing child.
In the US, we have largely abandoned neighborhood sandlot and pickup games for training environments that are structured and supervised. This makes some sense given that we are investing more time and money into our kids and their sports. We want to see a return on that investment.
But it doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of helping them pursue kid-led sports experiences that make them more confident, happier, and better athletes overall.
Just because we can’t measure the value of your kid goofing around shooting hoops with the neighbors as easily as we can a personal training session with timed drills doesn’t mean the value isn’t there.
The truth is that development happens during training as well as play, at practice each week and down the street on the weekend, under direct instruction from a trained professional and also when no one’s looking.
If we try to skip over the journey, we short-change critical developmental processes. Kids need to fail, to lose, to cry, to argue, to feel good about their game one day and not so good another. If we act like they are professional athletes — adults — who’ve already experienced all of those things, we don’t get the benefits that come from the beautiful mess.
Matt Bowers is a professor of sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in youth sport, pickup games and athlete development.