Blending: a key to youth sport development (part 2)

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

Last month I started a three-part series on youth sport development based on three questions that tend to pop up daily in the world of youth sports. Once again, here are the three questions that are being discussed in this series:

  1. How should we decide what level of competition/practice is appropriate for a child?
  2. Should a child play and focus on only one sport?
  3. How much time should a child spend playing to achieve his or her goals?  

Last month’s discussion was on the first question. To give a quick review, the key on the practice/competition question was blending, not eliminating. From the practice standpoint, the key point was that kids need to have situations where they battle (being one of the lower-end children) as well as situations where they’re a role model and leader (being one of the top-end children).

From the competition standpoint, the one-third rule was shared. This rule is simple: The child should be the “favorite” in one-third of the competitions, have a 50/50 chance of winning in one-third, and be the underdog in one-third. Once again, by creating these blends, a child is learning to deal with all the issues that come with their sport that could affect their overall performance.

We will now venture into the second question—whether a child should play and focus on only one sport. At issue is the misconception that if a child specializes in a sport at a young age, then he or she has an advantage over someone that does not. I would be lying if I said that I have never seen a child at a young age specialize and succeed at a high level. However, I would also be lying if I said I did not see a greater number of athletes achieve success by becoming better athletes first.

The first point I’d like to make is that the more athletic kids are, the better they will become in many sports as they get older. No single sport develops a child in all athletic skills. So, the greater the base of athletic skill development, the better the athlete will be able to perform. This is something that I have learned over the years, having the opportunity to see children grow and develop into great athletes in a variety of sports, and something that is very important for all parents to understand.

Coaches and clubs all seem to want kids to focus strictly on their sport and tell parents daily that their child needs to play that sport and only that sport to be the best. As someone who used to be that coach, I can assure you that is not the case. We should encourage multiple sport participation to allow children to develop fully as athletes. Once again, the better they are athletically, the better they will become in whatever sport they choose.

Now for the meat and potatoes of this month’s article: Although this information is based on a young child in the tennis world and the windows of growth and development, I have personally discovered that it applies to many, many sports. Below are the percentages based on age for play in a specific sport (in this case tennis), play in other sports, and other developmental work based on 100%.

Ages 7-10: 30% tennis, 30% other sports, 25% coordination, 10% speed, and 5% flexibility.

Ages 11-13: 50% tennis, 10% other sports, 10% in each coordination, speed, flexibility, and endurance.

Ages 14-16: 60% tennis, 12% speed, 12% strength, 10% endurance, and 5% flexibility.

Now you can see that as a child gets older, the stronger the focus on a single sport becomes, and as I mentioned, it is based on the true windows of growth and development.

Those crucial windows of athletic development include:

Ages 7-10: excellent window for coordination, balance, agility, running, jumping, sliding, gliding, motor control, motor learning, and speed of reaction development.

Ages 11-13: excellent window for motor control, speed of reaction, rhythm, spatial awareness, endurance, and strength development.

Ages 14-17: excellent window for rhythm, strength, endurance, and speed development.

As you can see, it is very important to address all areas of a child’s development, not just the sport. If a child is developed athletically, he or she will be better in any sport later down the road, and all the above shows why each window is important in overall development. Many sports are early introduction and late specialization sports. Coach and or clubs that truly understand this are the ones that really want to help your child develop and become the best he or she can be in the long run.

In closing, I would like to wish all of you and your families the happiest of New Years, and I look forward to sharing the third part of this series with you in February.❦