Understanding development challenges in sports

Written by by Mark S. Faber, USPTA Elite Professional. Posted in April

When families decide to invest in the world of youth sports, they are doing so with the mindset of seeing their children improve. When the process starts, everything is usually great, and as time goes on, the mindset changes from a bit more open to one that wants to see the children practicing and competing against only better players. On the surface, it would make a great deal of sense. However, if you dig into this a little more, you’ll see that developmental steps have been skipped. What I am going to share with you this month is the basic principal that I and many of my coaching friends try to follow.


The first part of this article will deal with the competition side. Many times, we face the question, should my child play their age division or the next one up? That is usually followed by the comment that the people in the higher division are stronger than the ones in their child’s. What I use to guide the decisions is what I call the 1/3 rule. One-third of the competition should be against people that on paper they should beat, 1/3 should be against even-strength people, and the last 1/3 should be against people that on paper would beat them. Here is a simple explanation of each:

1/3 you should beat on paper.This situation creates a stress level in the fact that they must play as the favored person and there are challenges that come with that. Playing as the favorite is never easy, especially when things get tight, so learning how to deal with the pressure will assist a player when learning how to focus and finish things.

1/3 you should be even with on paper.This situation creates a stress level since the two players are equal and will be battling evenly. Players will face multiple challenges, and true character will be seen and further developed in these situations.

1/3 you should lose to on paper. This is the situation that many parents want to put their kids into because they always say they play better against this level of player. They are correct; these situations do create a pressure-free environment since the person on the other side, on paper, should beat them, hence creating lower expectations from player and parent alike. So, the player will play freer on this level due to the lower expectations.

Now, all of these are important. All of them hold key components in the true development of players, and the lessons learned at each level will assist in the creation of a stronger competitor in the long term. It is the long-term picture that we must focus on, and dealing with the issues that are faced at each level does just that.

I would also like to share some thoughts on parents wanting their kids to play with only the better players. I will start off by saying that in every group, whether we want to admit it or not, there is a lower end and a higher end. Being on both ends holds value, as does transitioning from the lower end to the higher end.

The value of being at the lower end of the group is that you will have the opportunity to play against “stronger” players, which in turn will help you develop. However, what is lost are the lessons learned while being on the top end. When you are at the top of a team or group, you are the leader, the one people look up to. Not to mention you have to deal with the pressure to stay at the top while everyone is coming after you. Learning to deal with a leadership role that comes based on your ability is something that will pay off in the long term.

Colleges and future employers do not just want leaders that were the best individually; they want the ones that were the best teammates, leaders who could see the bigger picture. This, many times, is lost or not fully understood.

I do realize that transitioning is part of development. Improving from one level to the next should be everyone’s goal. Some will move faster than others. The key point I would like to make is simple: do not move a player just for the sake of moving them. Make sure they have paid the price and faced the challenges to become better in the long term. Each challenge faced, whether in a competitive or group environment, holds key learning components that will assist in a child becoming the best they can be.❦

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