I can’t stress enough the value of sport in the development of a child. It offers a litany of invaluable lessons and attitudes that transfer into life skills – things like teamwork, loyalty, etiquette, courtesy, socialization, and sportsmanship. Furthermore, being involved in sports can mean a reduction in the likelihood of their getting tangled up in less-desirable activities, as there isn’t as much idle time needing to be filled. Finally, building a robust base, or “library,” of physical literacy and abilities sets them up for a healthier life as they move through adolescence, adulthood, and their senior years.
Take the wrong approach during their formative years, however, and the opposite can occur – instead creating resentment towards sport(s) and driving them away from it, as they attach a host of negative emotions and lessons to their experiences. To avoid this happening, there are a few concepts that can help to minimize this negative interaction and create a lifelong love of the sport.
Parents and Coaches Define the Attitude
First off, it’s vital to remember that as coaches and parents, we set the tone for the attitude the child adopts towards sports and athletics. As a result, its important that one thing be front and center as we look to choose the league, sport, competition level, and teams:
Your kid isn’t turning pro.
Now, obviously, this isn’t an exclusive truth, or we wouldn’t have professional sports. But the reality is that as you watch little Sarah on the pitch with the other 8-year-olds, as good as she is, only 1% – of the top 1% – will ever be able to play at a professional level. And while we’d all like to believe our child is part of that exclusive club, the numbers suggest otherwise.
So instead of creating a U10 “elite” division, where they’re being coached, yelled at, and motivated in the same manner as a varsity athlete – consider making the focus, enjoying the game. This doesn’t mean taking an “everyone wins” approach, as there’s nothing learned from that, and losing all the time certainly isn’t fun. But what it does mean is there’s no need to scream at the kids, chirp at the other team, or berate the referees. In fact, doing so ironically drops the odds of going pro even lower, as you run a better chance of creating a deep-seated resentment and hatred for their sport, and they wind up hanging up the cleats/googles/racquets before they even get to high school.
Early Sport Specialization Has a Cost
We all know the stories about Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, but the reality is they are outliers – they may not have become the greatest of all time in their sports because of early specialization, but rather, in spite of it. Furthermore, cherry-picking examples who have an exceptional natural gift minimizes the extraordinary value of playing multiple sports, as the more singular the focus, the narrower the range of their skill development. And while early specialization definitively improves the odds of your child’s success within their age group, a peak this early in their development doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term participation.
Being a multi-sport athlete, on the other hand, not only helps them become more resilient as a child (by helping to avoid overuse injuries through varied rather than singular physical demands), but it also helps to develop a broader set of underlying physical skills and adaptability. So, while you may not have an all-star 12yo soccer player, you are increasing the odds of the child continuing to be active throughout their life.
Understand the Development Levels
Lastly, one of the keys to helping a child develop a lifelong love for physical activity is making it appropriate to their developmental age. It’s important to note that the term “developmental age” is used because it may be a little further along or slightly behind their chronological age, depending on the child, their physical maturation, and their environment.
The first four stages, prior to reaching high-level competition and a commensurate level of training (as defined by Canada’s “Sport for Life” Society) are:
Active Start: 0-6yo
Some sort of daily physical activity focused around “active play” – unstructured, non-competitive, and allowing children to develop comfort and confidence in a variety of fun, challenging activities and non-competitive games.
FUNdamentals: Boys ~6-9yo, Girls ~6-8yo
Emphasis is on activities that help develop the physical ABCs: agility, balance, coordination, and speed. Build up physical capacity through medicine ball, stability ball, and bodyweight activities while introducing simple rules and etiquette of sport focused on fair play and respect.
Learn to Train: Boys from ~9yo and Girls from ~8yo to the onset of the adolescent growth spurt
Continue to build fundamental movement skills and abilities while introducing ancillary capacities like warm-ups/cool-downs, nutrition, hydration, and recovery. Avoid early over-specialization while introducing formal local competition with an emphasis on fair play and opportunities to try different events and positions.
Train to Train: the period of an adolescent growth spurt, Boys ~12-16yo, Girls ~11-15yo
This is a crucial stage in the youth’s athletic development, as it’s during this period that they are most likely to either commit to a higher level of competition – or quit. As a result, if the goal is to create an “athlete for life,” it’s important to help those that aren’t interested in moving onto the more competitive ranks to find sports and/or activities that allow them to continue their development without the added pressure of elite competition. Given that this is a significant fitness development stage as well (from an aerobic and strength perspective), it becomes that much more important to create an environment that the adolescent enjoys so that they can take full advantage of this stage as an “investment” in later life.
Focus on the Long Term
As coaches and parents, we have a direct hand in helping cultivate the attitude of young athletes and our measure of success shouldn’t be exclusively focused on if the child reaches an elite level of competition. If through the above-listed pathway, the young athlete shows both an innate talent paired with a passion for their sport, there are directions that they can (and should) be led to help them express this skill at the highest level they are capable.
However, landing on the podium in their early teens only to quit before they graduate high school and adopt a sedentary lifestyle from there on not only does not reflect well on those of us who were involved in the athlete’s development, it offers a poor return on the innumerable sacrifices the child makes leading up to it. So, when evaluating our own level of achievement, instead of looking at how high a child is scouted or how many trophies and medals they win, we must consider whether we’ve created a love of sport and physical activity that they will take with them for the rest of their life.
Carmichael, D. (2008). Youth Sport vs. Youth Crime – Evidence that youth engaged in organized sport are not likely to participate in criminal activities. Brockville, Ontario: Active Healthy Links, Inc.
(2021). Multisport of Specialization: Which is Best? www.sportsengine.com. https://www.sportsengine.com/article/recruiting/multisport-or-specialization-which-best
(2019). Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity 3.0. www.sportforlife.ca. https://sportforlife.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Long-Term-Development-in-Sport-and-Physical-Activity-3.0.pdf