Two months ago, 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?
The first month the discussion was about blending the practice and competition components. Remember, there are great benefits to practicing and competing against all levels of players and taking them away from that means you are skipping important parts of development. Last month we ventured into the discussion about how having a child become a better athlete at a young age will give them an advantage in overall development. One of the key ways to make this happen is to expose your child to more than one sport at a young age versus the hot concept of “sport specialization” at a young age. The key windows of various skill learning, based on age, were also shared. Hopefully all of this stimulated some thoughts and possible discussions.
As we approach the third question in this series, it is important to recognize that this is probably one of the greatest challenges a parent faces during a child’s development. I say this from my experiences in the tennis world, for two questions seem to come up and have not changed over the years:
1. If these players are playing four hours a day, then my child needs to play at least that much, correct?
2. What can we do or set up to play every day of the week?
Does it make sense in the world of development that if a player is shooting more baskets, hitting more tennis balls, or hitting more baseballs they will improve faster? Yes, if a player goes from doing nothing to working four hours a week, they have just increased their activity 400%. However, there are two major concerns with playing too much. One of them is overuse injuries, which we are seeing more and more frequently. The other is burnout and the loss of fun and enjoyment of playing the sport.
Here is part of a presentation I gave for the USTA at an Early Development Training Center last year. All this information comes from their research and work with various industry leaders. When reading, you can easily substitute any sport where it says “tennis.”
“As we mentioned earlier, the number of sport specific injuries is on the rise in adolescent youth. They are training too much, too often, at too young of an age. It is important that we create balance in their lives and give them an opportunity to learn and discover things on their own. What the research is showing is that a big part of the increase in injury is due to the kids having too much structured time on the tennis court.
“The number of hours of structured lesson time on the court each week should mirror the child’s age. The other time should be spent playing other sports or playing tennis in an unstructured environment. That means that no coaches and/or parents are there telling the kids what to do. They are taking that time to learn on their own and develop problem-solving skills.
“As the child grows older and stronger, the ratio of tennis-specific training to unstructured play changes. Give your child the time they need to explore their own game on their own. In the long run, this will make them a much better tennis player as well as a much better person! Remember, we are trying to develop champions on and off the court.”
Hopefully you can see that this issue is very critical and these insights will provide guidance in your thoughts and plans with your young one. This is important to understand, not only for parents but also coaches.
In the end, both coaches and parents would like to see the child become the best they can be; however, it should not be at the cost of a young athlete’s health and well-being. Finding that balance is so crucial, but it’s not easy. When in doubt, keep the philosophy simple: “Athlete first, winning second.” By doing this, the decisions become easier. The discussions might become more difficult, but the big picture will have a greater chance of being longer and brighter.❦