Youth Athletics: Bumblebees and Ballerinas, a Game of Tag and the Olympic Podium.
There’s a little dance studio in a nearby Maine town where kids begin classes at a very young age. In a class of four or five four or five year olds, you’re likely to see four or five different physiques… four or five distinctly individual kids.
There are dance schools, just like this one, where the teacher will look at these kids and see each of them, as they show up for the first class, as a potential prima ballerina at American Ballet Theater. So will their parents, and that’s great.
In their very first performance, the students might dress up like little bumblebees and run around the stage in some semblance of a pattern. Parents will record it on their phones, and the audience will give them a generous and genuine ovation.
After the costumes are cleaned and put away, it’ll be clear that some of the bumblebees will never be principal dancers at ABT. But they keep attending class, week after week. Sacrifices are made. Parents keep writing checks. Teachers keep teaching.
If it’s to get these kids into ABT, sooner or later, frustration will begin to bubble up to the surface. Parents will blame the teachers, teachers will blame the kids, and the kids will doubt themselves. Not the intended outcome, at all. A kid ends up in the corps de ballet at a regional ballet company, and it’s a bit of a letdown.
If, however, the sacrifices are being made to give the kids a chance to be and express their best selves, unique artists and performers, expectation replaces frustration, and accountability replaces blame. There is real growth and earned satisfaction.
Now let’s consider a young runner.
He or she shows up to middle-school cross country practice along with ten other seventh graders. They are eleven individuals with eleven different physiques. The coach looks at them and sees eleven potential Olympic medalists. So do their parents, and that’s great. The coach sees a logical sequence of events.
1. In middle school, the coach will guide the athlete to run times that will enable them to make the varsity team in High School as a Freshman. Everyone will know the kid had a solid foundation that is the key to their success.
2. The high school coach will guide the athlete to qualify for State as an underclassman. Everyone will know the kid has been brought along quickly, maybe well ahead of schedule.
3. As an upperclassman, the kid will make All State, or win the state meet, and as a senior, will be recruited to a major D1 program as a full-ride scholarship athlete. Everyone will know the kid has been well prepared to succeed as a national elite.
4. In college, the kid will have a quiet freshman year, perhaps even redshirt, but will be building a solid foundation for their second year. As sophomores, they qualify for Nationals, by their senior year; they are All-Americans, or National Champions.
5. Shortly after graduation, the athlete will join a program that’ll get them to trials, then the Olympic Games. That’s when they medal.
All of this goes through the imagination of the coach, the parent, and the athlete. When they’re 12. Again, that’s great, but what happens when a kid doesn’t clear one of the sequence hurdles? Much like the ballet scenario, there’s ever-shifting blame, frustration, and self-doubt. It stops being fun. Kids drop out of sport altogether.
Now, if the work is being done to give a kid a happy, healthy, active life, developing grit and a healthy sense of competition, then blame is replaced with accountability, frustration with expectation and disappointment gives way to growth.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently published a statement paper concerning youth athletics. Some of it is fairly technical sport science, but the introduction and summary cover the ground beautifully. The committee articulates that if a country’s youth programs are too focused on medal counts, too much is lost for the 99% of children who don’t clear Olympic development hurdles. Here’s a summary of the general principles:
· Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and therefore it must be considered individually.
· Allow for a wider definition of sport success, as indicated by healthy, meaningful and varied life-forming experiences, which is centred on the whole athlete and development of the person.
· Adopt viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete's perspective and needs.
· Commit to the psychological development of resilient and adaptable athletes characterised by mental capability and robustness, high self-regulation and enduring personal excellence qualities—that is, upholding the ideals of Olympism.
· Encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (i.e., deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sport participation and enjoyment.
· Make a commitment to promote safety, health and respect for the rules, other athletes and the game, while adopting specific policies and procedures to avert harassment and abuse.
· Across the entire athletic development pathway, assist each athlete in effectively managing sport-life balance to be better prepared for life after sport.
Here’s a link to a video presentation of the entire report, if you’ve got sufficient interest and 33 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWmnjbLbqKQ
As a former youth athlete, parent, and coach, this makes perfect sense to me. As founder of a nonprofit built around youth running, it’s a compass guiding me toward effective programming. We need to carefully define success in athletics without diluting an athlete’s desire to grow and excel. Goal-setting is vital, and it has to be done honestly and well. Coaches need as much training as they can possibly acquire, and parents need to trust the coaches.
For every kid to advance, running needs to be fun and satisfying. Fun doesn’t mean easy. When I was a student-athlete, the most fun I ever had as a runner was a self-inflicted hill workout that left me on the side of the road in the fetal position. So, fun can be hard. It might also be as unstructured as a game of tag.
As parents and coaches, let’s be sure we listen to our kids. Let’s make sure they know what we’re thinking as well. Ask them what success looks like, and hear their answer. Remind them of their goals and guide them towards their goals. Give them firm and gentle support. That’s what they need.
Chuck Wilcoxen is the founder of Team Long Run (www.teamlongrun.org), a Maine-based nonprofit that provides access to running participation and guidance to help kids live happier, better balanced lives of promise. He is an IAAF Level 5 and USATF Level 3 certified endurance coach.