In part I and part II of this youth sports series, I talked about the importance of an off season and puberty. In this final section, I discuss what youth sports should really be about and what our kids need from a coach to stay healthy.
While my cookie analogy for young athletes works well to explain the baking process it falls short in one important regard. You can bake an outstanding cooking by folloing the recipe but there is no recipe for “making” an athlete. That involves coaching and often it is what is not in the play book that our kids need.
Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and youth sports activist, compares coaching to teaching. “A parent coaching doesn’t make any more sense than one of us teaching English or math because we took it in school.” Just like we have trained and educated teachers, youth sports needs trained and educated coaches. As we all know, today’s community coaches are often well meaning parents whose only expertise is watching ESPN and having played sports as a child.
As important as having well trained coaches, the mechanics of the game have to make sense for the developmental stage of the kids participating. Many sports are starting to take a more developmental approach which is why soccer now has shortened fields, and t-balls are used for young baseball and softball. Bigelow would like to see modifications in other sports as well. For example, have a 3 on 3 for youth basketball instead of the 5 by 5 we may be more familiar with from TV. Bigelow is quick to remind parents that what we see on TV is the tip of the iceberg, the most elite. Kids are still developing so they need very different sports structures and experiences. As Bigelow notes, “adapt the game to the kids, not kids to the game”.
The idea is to encourage kids to “play against their last best effort”, as Bigelow puts it, and not focus on specialization until growth is complete, which may not be until the junior year in high school for most teens, or even college. This is no different than majoring in any subject in school. You’d never pick a major without first tasting a smorgasbord of courses. And, even then, you always have a minor or two to keep yourself balanced.
One way to create variety is to expose kids to individual sports that can be enjoyed into adult life without the burden of a team. Golf, tennis and swimming fall into that category and so do baseball and basketball where there are often adult leagues. However, Bigelow cautions, it has to be on the child’s terms. “Kids love wacking balls”, notes Bob. “Let them create their own rules. Give them balls and a racquet and let them decide how to wack them over the net”.
Sports are in good company in today’s childhood. The same overuse phenomenon is happening in music, dance, art, acting, horseback riding, and just about every activity our kids are interested in. Sports should be coupled with nonsports and everything coupled with downtime. Otherwise, today’s kids will end up incomplete – just like serving chocolate chip cookies sans the chips.