Monday, October 17, 2011
While watching the National League Championship game Wednesday night, the commentators began discussing the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese. Apparently he became so burned out by baseball that he quit after high school. Eventually he decided to try playing at a junior college, and then he transferred to a Division I school. By the time he was offered a professional contract he was ready to recommit to the sport he had once abandoned.
The discussion then moved to a more general criticism of the intensity of youth sports overall, and baseball in particular. These experts spoke directly to the notion that if a child isn't identified as a youth player then he or she has no chance of becoming a pro. They called that idea hogwash. These former professional players argued that youth participants also need to be kids. While I can talk about not overwhelming our children with continual competitive sports, most people might not accept my admonishments since my only credentials are soccer mom. But I'm not alone.
Tim Keown of ESPN.com wrote a column on August 24, 2011 that directly addresses this issue
. He cites the problems with try outs at ages as young as eight to weed out kids and build a formidable team. For what? To win! And somehow winning is supposed to magically translate into improved skills, strong interest in the game, and growth into a top-rated player at the older ages. As Keown points out, we have gone crazy trying to place our preteen players on teams that offer professional coaches, intense competition, travel, and even year-round play. We live in fear that our kids will miss out on some significant connection that would lead them to a professional contract. We want to be sure that we have greased the wheels as well as we can. But the truth is that for kids under the age of 13, it isn't their athleticism, but their physical maturity that dictates their abilities. If you have a late bloomer, then he or she will probably have trouble getting into these "elite" programs until they catch up. On the other hand, the early bloomer may get onto top teams for many years, but as she is passed up by other players, she may find herself suddenly cut from the same teams where she used to be a star.
Sandy Henshaw (Cummings,) an All-American college basketball player and now a youth coach, didn't start playing competitive basketball until age 12. She states:
"The main ingredient to success is practice and experience. There is no substitute for that. But that practice can be attained in your own backyard and most of the time in quality rec leagues locally. Of course, there is a point where good athletes will only get better by improving the quality of players around them. But that would be rare for an 8 year old."
She isn't the only significant sports success story who waited until an older age before entering their highly competitive sport. Basketball player Tim Duncan didn't start playing until 9th grade. Olympic bobsledder Emily Azevedo entered the sport when she was 23 after she watched the 2006 Torino games and decided to give it a try, making the 2010 Olympic team. Johnny Weir didn't start figure skating until he was 12, an age at which youth skaters are expected to already be proficient and entering Junior Championship competitions.
Some models of player development for sports like swimming, tennis, gymnastics, and soccer argue that players have to start at a very young age. Overseas soccer players are nurtured from an early age and brought into professional clubs to develop at the exclusion of other sports and even academics, and then they are cut, trained, or sold. Because the U.S. wants to become equally competitive with European and South American players, soccer professionals are attempting to duplicate some of this development model used throughout the world. Unfortunately it feeds directly into the American obsession to succeed. With local clubs, for-profit soccer camps and professional pundits arguing for early development and offering "elite," "select," "competitive" and "next level" training programs, parents can agonize over missing out on opportunities. If programs were truly developing players, then starting young would have a definite advantage. But given the number of players who don't have a good first touch, don't know how to receive a ball on the chest and drop it to their feet, don't know how to play with both feet, and don't know how to trap a ball, our early development is failing. Kids play games and get rewarded for scoring, but don't get equally rewarded for execution of skills.
This then begs the question: What should I do for my good soccer athlete? Find a great program which focuses on skills development, mental preparation, fitness, and team tactics. Winning should come a distant fifth to these factors. This is no easy task since most clubs live and die on their win/loss record. But the emphasis at the preteen ages should be on development rather than winning. Development doesn't require that a team be stacked with all the biggest and fastest kids. A club which puts equal emphasis on all youth players understands that young players ebb and flow based on growth spurts, mental toughness, and commitment to the sport. Youth soccer has moved to a development model with small-sided games until U-12 and less emphasis on league competition until the players are teenagers. Nevertheless, clubs will attempt to play teams up a year or two to give them "good competition" and a feeling of being in an "elite" group. While it may sell memberships in the soccer club, it's not the best for true player development where the focus is on individual skills not on team success.
As parents, we need to look past the smoke screen of titles, wins, and promises. Taking kids to competitions outside the state and even across the country before they are old enough to need deodorant is ridiculous. Saying that they will benefit from top competition ignores the fact that they are playing against other 8, 9, or 10 year olds. It's not as if they suddenly grabbed the brass ring and were going one on one with David Beckham. Save your money for when it really matters. Wait until your child has as much invested in playing at a top level as you do. They can't possibly understand what committing to a sport means until they have the mental faculties to place that experience in the context of their lives. Until they do, give them exposure to lots of sports, arts, and fun experiences. Provide them with the support they need, but don't go to extremes. You don't need to keep up with the Joneses in order to have your child succeed later in life at sports, academics, and friendships. Enjoy the few years you have when they are still naïve, silly, and open to new adventure. If they are strong athletes, they will find their athletic niche and succeed, hopefully with the same joy they had when they were falling on the field and making goals in their own net.