To say that the youth sport culture has changed would be the understatement of all understatements. Now, I don’t want to come across as one of those guys that uses the “back in my day” storytelling style, but let me tell you something, back in my day, things were different. Kids played pickup games with friends. We played street hockey, basketball, football, had homerun derby’s, and tons of other things I can’t even think of. There were no rules made by adults. We made the rules and did whatever we felt like doing that day. And when we were done, we probably ate some pizza, drank soda, and washed that down with a pack of skittles and then called it a day. I am 32 years old, so, in my mind “back in my day” wasn’t that long ago, or maybe it was…
The benefits of youth sports are well known. Kids learn leadership, have fun with friends, can build self-esteem, promotes physical activity, and they get to socialize with peers. These things would benefit any kid. We need to keep them participating in athletics. It is crucial. But we have entered a new era for youth athletics. Unstructured play time is not as common as it once was. Take a look at some of the parks or basketball courts that were popular for you as a kid. Are kids still playing there? Is the park even there anymore? Now, we have clubs, travel teams, structured practice every day, and coaches/adults involved in everything. We also have kids participating in one activity 365 days out of the year with little to no variation. Because of this, it is no wonder why statistics like this exist: 70% of youth athletes discontinue playing a sport by age 13.
So what should we do as adults, coaches, and parents? It appears the recipe for long term success is as follows: Early Sport Diversification + Delayed Sport Specialization = A greater likelihood of lifelong sports involvement, a lifetime of physical fitness, and possible elite participation. The key word there is possible. If we look at the numbers, depending on the sport, only 3-11% of high school athletes play collegiate sports. 1% may actually get a scholarship and 0.3-0.5% might even reach the pros. Now, if you take a look at those numbers, you need to truly be an outlier in order to specialize. For the rest of us, the focus should be placed not on scholarship, but on varied sport participation and encouraging lifelong training habits. Once high school ends, if we are not playing a collegiate sport, we need to have training habits established that we can do at any age. So lets take a look at the best way to develop athletes starting from day one.
Six Stages of Long Term Athletic Development: