Teaching Skills in Youth Sports: Why it Matters More Than You Think (Parents)

If you look into the young lives of some great athletes you will see an extremely disciplined and strategic approach to achieving excellence that some call "champion-building."  This style leads to success in rare cases, but not on a regular basis.  In reality, these outliers have negatively affected the way we teach young people how to play the sports of their choosing (if they even get to truly choose at all).  This is definitely a "hands-on" style of sports parenting.  Another is to push sport participation and at the same time tell the young athlete (directly or indirectly) how great they are and reward them for winning at a young age.  Both can be detrimental, and I'll attempt to explain why.

As a precursor, this post is mainly focused toward parents of young athletes.  There will be a post soon aimed at youth sport coaches and those roles can sometimes blend into each other, but this meant to generally influence the "big picture" of sport participation, which is mainly in the hands of the parents.

Both models that I brought up certainly are not the only way that young athletes are learning skills in sport.  What I fear, though, is that this overly hands-on approach is becoming the norm.  In turn, youth sport might just be reaching the threshold of being overly pressurized and overly professionalized.  This approach can come with two different sorts of messaging.  The first is that "my kid needs to do a lot of work before they can be the best."  That work comes in the form of what some have termed deliberate practice, or purposeful improvement that doesn't always coexist with a fun atmosphere.  The second is that "my kid is definitely the best" or "my kid is definitely better than _____."  This can contribute to a comparison-fueled environment where being better than my peer is the most important thing.  While parents often think this is going to boost confidence, it usually fails to prepare them for the time when they realize that they aren't the best.  Here's what I don't like about these approaches: they are making kids quit sports at younger and younger ages.

Most don't realize the amount of 10-14 year old athletes who are reporting high levels of pressure to be successful in their sport.  In my experience, pressure is 100% based on interpretation and most often comes from the importance placed on events.  All of the life changes that are going on at this time in a young person's life, and they feel that the pressure in sport is what puts them over the edge?  I see a little problem with that.  

So, what should the message be to a young athlete of this age?  Like I was fortunately told many times as a young player, "I love watching you play."  This simple message peels away the idea that my sport can't be fun in order for me to be good.  It peels away the idea that I have to be the best of all of my friends  It peels away the idea that I have to win in order to feel like I accomplished something.  The emphasis on joy and fun still drives a young person to improve and put forth effort, but it does so in a way that attaches no value to winning a game or beating someone else.

Sport is filled with opportunities to handle adversity.  Creating adversity by applying constant pressure will lead to an overload.  Failing to prepare them for adversity by telling them how good they are right now will lead to a breakdown when adversity comes.  The best idea, in my opinion, is to take a hands-off approach.  Let them face and break through adversity with their own toolbox filled with mental skills that they have developed on their own.  A young person who handles healthy stress without quitting is likely to be an adult who can do the same in a variety of conditions.

Come back for some tips for coaches on teaching skills to young athletes.  We'll talk about real strategies for skill development that combat fear and embarrassment.


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