Not Every Youth Superstar Is Going To Be A Professional
I want to be the next Michael Jordan! Kobe… Brady… Lebron! As strength coaches, we’ve heard it all before not just from kids who we work with, but from their parents and sport coaches as well.
At the very first glimpse of talent at a young age, parents and sport coaches tend to usually jump too quickly into the million dollar question…
Is my kid talented enough to be a professional athlete? When handled improperly, this question can have some major negative repercussions on children as developing youth athletes, and as kids in general.
Coming to the realization that not every youth sports superstar is going to become a professional is an important first step for many naturally overbearing parents and coaches. But next step is more important:
If you want to give your kids the best shot to physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically develop to have a chance to one day play their chosen sport an an elite level while building a strong foundation of the importance of physicality, you better not be specializing them in a single sport too early.
Play For The Love of The Game, Not The Theoretical Future
Every kid that loves a sport has that one athlete they idolize and enjoy to watch play. Watching that professional athlete compete in their sport is often the reason for a kid to start developing a passion in a particular sport. We’ve all had sports heroes from our youth, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Having a strong figure to look up to is important for youth development. It gives a child something abstract that they can then strive for in the future, someone that is doing amazing things in their niche interest. Again, that’s what can help ignite the fire and passion to possibly achieve something great at some point in time.
But emulating a professional athletes training, preparation and lifestyle can also be a very sharp double edged sword.
Our Misguided Youth Development Model
This exact situation has ironically led to a self-created issue within the world of sports performance training. As coaches, trainers, etc. we all have that innate drive to be the best. But the best for a youth athletes development and performance is usually NOT going to be the same as a professional athletes. This is a hard concept for even the smartest parents and coaches with the best backgrounds in a given sport to conceptualize.
Most coaches and serious parents tend to come from a sports background and have a competitive drive behind themselves anyways. And of course, we all want the best for our children, that’s just human nature. But here’s the kicker, what our industry and society has taught parents over the past two decades as “the best” for building professional athletes is actually dead wrong.
Before we start pointing fingers and blaming people for our increased injury incidence in youth sports along with the ever growing burnout rate at younger and younger ages, lets get one thing straight. It’s clear that parents THINK they are doing their children a service by specializing them early and training them with the latest methods the pros are using. Again, it’s not their fault for buying into a system that has been preached on a pedestal since they can remember.
But here’s where it gets confusing for many. In order to be the best, you need to do what the best are doing, right? Not exactly, and as a clinician who sees how truly individualized each given athletes, client and patient is, we must be training, rehabbing and competing based on the given needs of that child, not a theoretical perfect model of performance.
Proper And Complete Athletic Development Is A Process
As specialists who work with youth, collegiate and professional athletes, we are very firm believers in the idea that youth athletes must train and prepare differently than their professional and elite counterparts. But after continuously refining our systems on the topic of youth development and preparation, we’re not sure if the question, “Should kids train like pro athletes?” is the right question to be asking.
So what is the right question? It comes down to this, what would you do differently in the assessment process if both a youth athlete and a professional athlete walked through the door? To be honest, my answer never really changed. I would assess their readiness to participate in their desired sport, and this goes for any sport, physical activity or individual for that matter.
The power of individualization to test, assess, improve and create capacity is an absolute necessity to achieve world-class results.
A readiness assessment will vary greatly from pro to pro, and child to child. This can not be over stated. I get it, and I’ve seen it… It’s very easy to fall victim to what’s hot on the social media train. We see athletes doing some unique exercise on a NFL combine training video on social media and immediately every athlete that runs through the gym is now attempting this exact same drill, but without the reasoning or know why behind the prescription of the exercise.
A youth athlete, or coach for that matter, sees a professional athlete back squatting 3 plates or exploding through the roof on an ultra high level box jump variation. Next thing you know that youth athlete is trying to load up the squat bar and do those same box jumps even though he is unable to perform even a bodyweight squat with proper form and technique. Sadly, we see this all the time, and the issue becomes a question centered around risk vs reward in terms of injury prevention, performance enhancement and optimal youth development.
Coaches and athletes need to understand that athletic development is a process. You do not become an elite athlete overnight. It’s something that is a step by step process forward that most youth athletes do not properly adhere to as they fall off before development or refinement ever takes place. This is exactly why we need to make a paradigm shift in our industry and change the questions being asked…
Individualizing Youth Training Based On Needs, Not Wants
Properly prescribed and implemented training programs should NOT be based off of the question: Is this a pro, college, high school, or youth athlete? The question should be: How ready is this athlete to perform or develop on their particular competition stage?
If you can answer that question, you will be in a much better position to progress your athletes.
Readiness can be defined as “the state of being fully prepared for something.” Readiness will fluctuate throughout the year for athletes, and absolutely on a day-to-day as well. The need for peak readiness will obviously differ from sport to sport. It’s also important to note that an athlete can NOT be completely ready 100% of the time, so it may be wise to pick and choose certain points in time to be most ready, and peak for a given goal or time table of competition.
Finally there are numerous circumstances that can impact an athlete’s readiness for sport such as age, genetics, medical history, bone and muscle/tendon structure, playing time, length of season, sleep, nutrition, salary, schoolwork, training history, and personal life to name just a few.
For example, the NFL combine poses a certain kind of readiness. It is an extremely short amount of time for an athlete to prepare for a high stakes assessment of physical attributes. The volume, pace, and intensity of training is not sustainable for anyone over an extended period of time. But the stakes are high, and a chance to make an NFL team or earn a life changing salary creates a need for a period of overreaching with the goal of eventually peaking physically at a particular task at a moment in time.
The three sport high school athlete has a separate type of readiness. Maturity both physically and emotionally will impact training. Rapid growth spurts and coordination of extremities play a role into ones movement capabilities. School work, social pressures, and life stressors to that particular generation will vary from year to year. Practices, games, length of seasons, and social life all impact ones readiness to compete at the highest level for that particular individual during the season.
How about readiness for an aging professional athlete? One that used to be at the pinnacle of their sport. Now just holding onto the game for as long as they can because they love playing it. Certainly age and the wear on the body from all the seasons prior are going to impact them. Minutes and number of games now becomes even more important to monitor than before. They have probably already maximized their athleticism at some point and now the goal has shifted toward sustainability.
The point of these three examples are not to add confusion or complexity to the issue. The purpose is actually to show you the reason why we need to simplify our understanding before breaking down individual needs and training complexities. This is why it is important to be asking the right question.
The Big Differences Between Youth and Pro Athletes
The big question that needs to be answered in order to optimize training at any age or skill level is how ready is the athlete to perform or develop?
The only huge difference between a youth athlete and a collegiate/pro athlete is the timeframe that maximum readiness is needed. Collegiate and Pro athletes have a need to maximize readiness each season. While youth athletes have the luxury of developing multiple physical qualities and skills first that will help them express specific sport readiness down the road when appropriate. We have written about why overspecialization in youth athlete development can be detrimental here and here.
If the goal is to truly develop a youth athlete, then general physical preparedness is necessary for highly specific sport readiness at some point in time during an athletic career. Knowing this, we can better construct a program that prepares an athlete to be ready for specificity later in life.
Movement, coordination, balance, technique, work capacity, and baseline levels of strength are all qualities in a training program that create readiness in a youth athlete. These qualities should be maximized in an individual first when there is a longer timeframe available to better express other physical qualities rewarded in sport such as speed, power, and explosiveness.
The Big Picture In Youth Sports and Training
As coaches, trainers, and parents, we must be giving our children what they need, instead of what many think they want. This comes with a creating a foundational approach to training that is lead by a long term development model. This requires us all to take a step back, and realize that we are coaching, training and PARENTING children here, not elite professional superstars. The needs of both of these demographics are vastly different.
The goal of youth sports, and specialized training for those sports is not to create the best 10 year old on the field, but to allow attainment of skills, capacities and development that allows youth athletes to progress over a period of time and peak strategically when it means the most… the end of high school into college (if ever).
Sure, some super sexy training methods that are utilized in the professional setting are polarizing, but lets remember what got these athletes to this level in the first place… a strong and holistic foundational development early on.
It’s our jobs as parents, coaches and leaders of youth sports to do one thing… allow our kids to be kids, and keep them physically, mentally and emotionally engaged with leading a healthy and active lifestyle. If we can do that, not only will we produce better athletes in the long run (even at elite levels) but also teach kids the powerful building blocks of life around sports and training. The power is in our hands as influencers, so start making a difference right away. Your kids will thank you!
About The Authors
Dr. Greg Schaible is a physical therapist and strength coach specializing in athletic performance. Greg is the owner of On Track Physical Therapy and Content Manager for Sports Rehab Expert. In addition to his rehabilitation services, Greg has a passion for sport specific youth athlete training.
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.