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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Missing too many late bloomers in youth sports

In observing the youth sports culture over the past almost thirty years as a parent, it has been a relief in recent times to notice what I hope is a permanent shift in attitude.  There is at least a spoken commitment these days (we will have to wait and see if actions follow words) regarding the notion of developing young players for the long term.

That strikes me as a very good thing.

I raise this in part because it has been my experience over the years that, too often, youth sports coaches focused on building winning teams at the expense of helping all the players on their roster get better. This approach tended to include selecting and/or giving the most playing time to the biggest, fastest and oldest (those born early in the calendar year) kids and any youngsters who were really outstanding at the early competitive ages.

On the one hand this is understandable, I suppose.  Coaches naturally gravitate toward young athletes who stand out at those early ages (e.g. ages 9 through 14). They want to create a roster that will win games today if they are involved in competitive leagues.

That “win now” focus may create some short-term team success in terms of winning medals, but often at a much larger cost to kids who deserve better.

If coaches (and parents) step back and reflect, they will recognize that the vast majority of kids play sports for fun and to be with friends. Sure they like to compete, but most aren’t thinking (at least not seriously) of a professional career in athletics.

So what do most youngsters want, when it comes to their experience in youth sports?

They want to play, they want to have fun, and they want to improve their skills so they can enjoy the game even more and compete better.

If a coach is really doing his or her job, then they are also looking to build the skills of all their players.  Even the really good young players may suffer if a coach does not have the ability to really develop players to their potential, because the coach doesn’t help them improve their overall game.  Too often coaches with the “win now” mentality just focus on the things those gifted youngsters do well to help their team win today, when they could also be helping that youngster become an even better player.

And what about the other, supposedly less talented players?

Many young athletes develop later than others their age.  Physically or emotionally they may not “find their game” until they are older.  These youngsters often may be extremely coachable, have big hearts, work hard and do all the right things.  But maybe they may lack the technical skills, speed or size to compete at a high level when they are very young.

Over time, however, if their level of dedication remains high, they improve by leaps and bounds and become very good players.  By then, however, the system has often passed them by, and there is little or no chance to get noticed for opportunities to compete at the more elite levels.

Of course, really good players can sometimes find their way through that system later than others, thankfully.  But my concern is for those youngsters who may lack the confidence early on to continue on in their sport.  How many kids do we lose because they are deemed “not good enough” in various sports when they are only 12 or 13?

Hopefully the current focus on long-term player development in sports will have a carry-over effect that ensures youth coaches (and scouts for higher-level teams at the provincial/state and/or national levels) always keep an eye out for that player who may emerge later in life than some of the early obvious standouts.

Those coaches just have to know what to look for.

Sometimes the late-bloomer can win the race—if given a chance.