Tuesday, July 12, 2011

World Youth Championship and the Long-Term Athlete Development - ACHTUNG Series!

The World Youth Championship involves track and field events for athletes 17 years of age and younger.   Taking place last week in France, there have been some incredible performances posted.  Throughout it all I received numerous inquiries as to my thoughts about the World Youth Championships and the phenomenal performances which were being demonstrated.

Frankly, I am a supporter of the World Youth Championship in so far as it encourages only fun!  The development of an athlete is long term process, especially in a sport where athletes compete well into their thirties.  The research concerning athlete development tells us that athletes should not specialize in a discipline until the age of 16.  The risks of early specialization are long including burnout and injury. 

However, while the youths participating in the Championship may have had fun, my concern are the parents and the coaches involved, where it is less about fun and more about performance. In spite of what the research may say and the Long Term Athlete Development model, some coaches and parents will continue to stress competition and performance. 

I shake my head in disbelief.  The truth of the matter is while youths may demonstrate phenomenal results in the grand scheme of things they are not necessarily indicative of future performances.  What many adults seem to overlook is a little thing called growth and maturation.  So, while, kids may share the same age, where they are in their biological development may not be in line.  This difference in maturation will tremendously influence their athletic ability.  And if not that, the stressing of performance at an early age gives way to early drop out from the sport and burnout.  The most important thing to be focused when it comes to youth and sports is fun!

Everyone is always looking for the next great one.  Great performances at a young age seem to be the indicator of future great performances to many coaches and parents, in spite of what the research tells us.  In the sport of track and field, few junior athletes who medal at World Junior Championships ever medal at the senior level or continue on this upward trajectory.  That is a fact!  Sure, you may have the occasional Usain Bolt, but such athletes are the outliers. 

If you are hoping your child or athlete becomes an elite athlete, my advice is to develop a well-rounded athlete across various sports and discipline, provide a supportive environment, emphasize fun and de-emphasize specialization and competition while they are youths… this is the real secret to elite athlete development….

P.S: I didn’t even begin high jumping until I was 17… thank God for that because I’m reaping that benefit now.

Supporter of the Sport for Life model,

Nicole Forrester, PhD Candidate
7-Time Canadian Champion
Olympian, Commonwealth Gold & Bronze Medalist
19-Time Canadian National Team Member

5 comments:

Rich's blog said...

I am down with the long term development... but swimmers start on average at like 6-10 years old.

Worlds best soccer players start early too.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I have been coaching for 25 years and see parents of 6 year olds that really do think the kid is the next great one! Let them start organized team sports at 8 and have fun for a long time. Not this 3,4, 5 nonsense. I have seen so many Canadian and PanAm champs who totally burned out at age 18!

Alexa Loo said...

I agree with you Nicole!
My parents came to my track meets and watched other kids (who were actually good).
But when they came to the Olympics, they watched me (although not in track or field) snowboard!

Nicole Wendy Forrester said...

I love what Alexa said. I think she captured it best. By participating in various sports, it gives way to become excellent in one. Sure you may start off in track and field, soccer, gymnastics or hockey, but you might end up becoming the best in the world in anothe sport like say tennis. There is a transfer of skills between sports, and that is one of the benefits of delayed specialization.

Common practice needs to be distinguished from what creates excellence. While it may be common for an athlete to swim from the time they are a fetus, perhaps they may peak at 30 instead of 18? It is fine to be involved in sports from a young age, in fact I would encourage it. The problem is when the element of competition is emphasized more than fun...

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