Blending: a key to youth sport development (part 1)

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

As a youth sports coach, the years might pass by but the same questions seem to arise when working with players and parents. The top three questions that seem to come forward are:

1. How should we decide what level of competition/practice is appropriate for my child?

2. Should my child play and focus on one sport only?

3. How much time should my child be playing to achieve his/her goals?


Over the next three months, I will be sharing with the readers some basic thoughts and information on all three of these questions that transcend all sports. This month we will be focusing on the first question: How should one decide on the level of competition for a child’s practice and play environments?

This question is always a tough one, for you must look at it from several angles. However, if you look at it based on the masses and not the outliers, then the answers become easier. Two simple questions I always ask myself and the parents are:

1. Is the child the best (and I mean number 1)?

2. Where is the child in terms of maturation?

Why would I ask those questions? Well, if a player is not number 1, then that means there are still better players and they have something to strive for. Being the best means being the best. What does maturation rate have to do with it? Well, if the child is 12 years old but appears to be10 based on growth, then moving him or her up to a higher age division could cause physical issues simply based on the size and strength of the other athletes that have hit their growth spurts earlier. So, it would be okay to wait for growth to start to occur before making that move.

The flip side also needs to occur. A false sense could be created if a player is bigger, stronger and faster at an early age. This is where adjustments would need to be made as well. Neither of these are easy conversations. However, they need to be had in the best long-term interest of the child.

When discussing this issue with parents and players, another statement I often hear is, “My child plays so much better when they practice and compete against ‘better’ players.” This statement tends to be accurate, not because of anything special or secret, but simply because when a person is competing or practicing with a “better” player, expectations are lowered. When that happens in youth sports today, young athletes tend to perform better. Once again, it usually has nothing to do with their playing level, just reduction of the pressure they feel.

From a practice standpoint, let me share two thoughts. One, it is important for a child to learn how to fight and battle. Two, a child needs to learn to be a leader and how to be the “top dog.” Both come from practicing with different levels. If you are the best in the group, that’s a good thing, for it’s important to experience the pressure of being at the top with people battling to gain your spot. The other benefit that comes with being the “best” is how people look up to you as a leader.

Now, if a player is in a practice environment where they are not the “best” player, then they will be the one battling and fighting to move up in the group. See? Being at the top and fighting to reach the top are equally important in an athlete’s overall development for they need to learn how to handle both sides of the plate. Always being in a group with “better” players does not allow one to experience this.

From a competition standpoint, a simple formula of thirds should be used. This concept is simple: One-third of your competition should be against people you are favored to beat, one-third should be against people you have a 50/50 chance of beating, and the final third should be against people who are favored to beat you.

Here is a breakdown of each:

One-third—you’re favored

This allows an athlete to experience the pressure of being the favorite and dealing with the stressors that come with it in a variety of situations. Many times, when players are faced with this pressure, they will experience a tightening in their game and their level of play might drop, not because of the other players’ level, but because the athlete is facing and struggling with opponents who want to move up. This is a great opportunity to grow!

One-third—50/50 odds

This allows for an athlete to experience a true battle and learn how to figure things out. Also, many times the opponents in this group are an athlete’s true peers, and that is who they are compared to if there are any college aspirations.

One-third—you’re not favored

This allows an athlete to have the complete opposite experience of when they are the favorite. Many times one will see a rise in play in this scenario, which can create a false sense of the athlete’s skill level. But again, this improvement is usually due to the reduction of pressure on the athlete.

Certainly, there are different views on the formula described above. However, if you look at it from the standpoint of a long-term developmental process, then blending is important, not eliminating. By eliminating, you are essentially skipping steps in the process. For an athlete to be the best he or she can be, skipping steps could produce holes in the overall long-term development physically, mentally, and emotionally.

As a coach and parent, it is my role and responsibility to try to help everyone become the best they can be overall, and that includes practicing and competing against all levels. Next month, we will discuss the issue of sport specialization.

In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of you the happiest of holiday seasons. Please enjoy this time with your family, as it is truly the most important thing we have.❦

St Ursula Academy