The Different "Windows Of Opportunity" In Youth Sports

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As humans, we all operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so long as we are lucky enough to be on this earth. In athletics, however, the same cannot be said as nothing is guaranteed. Some of us never even make the team, most never make it past high school, and only a handful of rare talents make it to the professional/elite level of competition. For this to occur, an immense amount of hard work, natural-born talent, and a little bit of luck must occur. There is no one size fits all blueprint to making it big. However, success does leave patterns.

Perhaps one of the most underappreciated aspects of athletic success is a firm understanding of what I call the 'window of opportunity as it pertains to each sport. To clarify, I am NOT referring to the window of opportunity theory discussed in the classic long-term athletic development (LTAD) models. These are extremely important. They refer to the biological age with which specific physical attributes are most sensitive to development (i.e., increasing speed, strength, endurance, etc.). What I am referring to specifically is the age with which one can compete relative to their sport. Both manners are equally as necessary, and I firmly stand behind the classic LTAD model, but I want to clarify that I am discussing something entirely different.

There is a huge difference between an Olympic-level figure skater's average age and career length versus an elite-level triathlete. Their opportunity to achieve elite status is entirely different. Therefore entirely different approaches must be taken from an early age.

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As humans, we all operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so long as we are lucky enough to be on this earth. In athletics, however, the same cannot be said as nothing is guaranteed. Some of us never even make the team, most never make it past high school, and only a handful of rare talents make it to the professional/elite level of competition. For this to occur, an immense amount of hard work, natural-born talent, and a little bit of luck must occur. There is no one size fits all blueprint to making it big. However, success does leave patterns.

LTAD Model (Long-Term Athletic Development)

Perhaps one of the most underappreciated aspects of athletic success is a firm understanding of what I call the 'window of opportunity as it pertains to each sport. To clarify, I am NOT referring to the window of opportunity theory discussed in the classic long-term athletic development (LTAD) models. These are extremely important. They refer to the biological age with which specific physical attributes are most sensitive to development (i.e., increasing speed, strength, endurance, etc.). What I am referring to specifically is the age with which one can compete relative to their sport. Both manners are equally as necessary, and I firmly stand behind the classic LTAD model, but I want to clarify that I am discussing something entirely different.

There is a huge difference between an Olympic-level figure skater's average age and career length versus an elite-level triathlete. Their opportunity to achieve elite status is entirely different. Therefore entirely different approaches must be taken from an early age.

Athlete Case Studies

Athlete 1

This athlete is a 14-year-old female gymnast with hopes and aspirations to make it to the Olympic games one day. She is highly dedicated and began training for fun at the age of 4. She demonstrates a high level of pruriency and thoroughly enjoys what she's doing. Many of her peers are similar, and all hope to qualify for the Olympic games within the coming years.

Her parents have done their research and realize that the average female Olympic gymnast is between 16-18 years old, now is the time to commit and help push their daughter to the next level. If she does not qualify for the Olympics, she would undoubtedly love to compete in college, but after college, her chances of qualifying for the Olympics are much smaller.

Specializing in gymnastics alone and putting all of her available time for athletics towards this endeavor would likely be a wise idea if she did indeed want to achieve this goal. This is proper recognition of the window of opportunity gymnastics presents.

Athlete 2

This athlete is a 12-year-old boy who plays American football. He is above average in terms of his size and speed but love's a host of other sports, including basketball and baseball.

After a successful season, this boy's parents decided to take him out of public school. They have him home-schooled and start doing private training sessions during the day and attending 'elite youth quarterback camps' throughout the year. Also, they decided that basketball and baseball were no longer going to fit into his schedule, so the primary focus from now on would only be on football.

This boy became increasingly anxious and upset that he couldn't play any other sports and began to dislike playing football altogether, so much so that by the time he was 17 years old, he quit his local high school team. His career is over before the window of opportunity ever opened.

While these two cases may seem rather general, they are extremely common. The significant discrepancy is that athlete one participated in a sport that had a finite window to become elite. It was imperative to cease it at an early age. In contrast, athlete 2 had plenty of time to develop and didn't need to be ready for a high level of competition for several years (somewhere around age 18) but ultimately burned out before ever even getting there.

Doing It Right

Unfortunately, stories similar to that of athlete 2 are a dime a dozen. Young athletes are still children at heart, not just small adults. The nature of their sport will dictate the degree to which they must commit their time too.

Sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, and alpine skiing require immense technical skills to be harnessed from an early age. In general, competitive team sports such as American football, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse afford athletes more time to develop before reaching the collegiate and professional level. There are always outliers in both cases, but generally speaking, young athletes should participate in a wide array of activities and only begin to specialize when they need to so that they diversify their athletic portfolio.

Parents, athletes, and coaches alike should do their research and due diligence to understand when the appropriate time is to buckle down and seize the opportunity of their sport. An important note is that this will also vary significantly between males and females.

Three Golden Window Of Opportunity Rules

  1. Move from general to specific
  2. Do the right things at the right time
  3. Know the difference between enough and too much.
  4. Lastly, when it is time to seize a window of opportunity, do it with everything you've got because it won't last forever!