So you want to build your kid into a superstar young athlete. You want to give her every opportunity that you never had. She might just be 5 years old, but you want her to get a full-ride scholarship, and then maybe, the Olympics.
How the heck are you going to do it?
The correct answers are not:
- Ultra-structured youth sports performance training, every day of the week.
- Year-round sports
- The same sport, all the time
- Ultra-competitive travelling teams, as soon as she qualifies
- “Putting it all on the line” every weekend
- Camps and camps and camps
- Playing on multiple teams for the same sport at the same time
- “Sucking it up” when it comes to injuries
The correct answers are:
- Play lots of different sports. Many different activities means that she is going to get a well-rounded athletic development. This gets even more important the younger she is. Skills like body awareness, hand-eye coordination, general strength, agility, and others require varied experiences, and she probably won’t get that playing soccer 12 months out of 12. Try out gymnastics, and track and field. Those are two sports that will help build a great foundation for later on.
- Take breaks from organized sports at some point during the year. Remember that something has to go away for her to miss it. Especially when they’re younger, active, unstructured play will still develop important motor skills for later performance. “Tag” trains acceleration, deceleration, top speed running, change of direction, hand-eye-coordination, and let’s her get grass stains. Plus its fun.
- Make sure she is getting plenty of recovery between practices. This means good food, good sleep, good hydration, and sufficient rest-time between training days. We have an relatively recent epidemic of injuries among youth that come largely from waaaayyy too many contact hours.
- Let her love the sport. Dedication and single-minded focus on becoming the best athlete she can later in her sporting career will be a major key for success. Love of the game is a hugely important part of that. Athletes generally won’t dedicate their time, money, bodies, careers etc. unless they really love their sport. Want to drive her away from a sport? Take the fun out of it. On the other hand, if you can help her learn to love sports earlier on by ensuring it stays fun, the dedication will come.
- The focus on development of skills and abilities is ridiculously important early on. Long, difficulty competition seasons really shouldn’t be a part of sport until later on in her career. Before you can win, you have to train. You don’t become a better athlete by playing in games all the time. You get better by practicing and training hard, at the right times, with the right amounts.
- At the same time, make sure that she is getting a ton of unstructured play in addition to “training”. Toss her and her friends a couple of soccer balls, and let them figure it out. You can show them tag, or kickball, or other games. If they play within structure, cool! If they just want to run around, let them do that too! Observe the “training” below…
- Get her stronger. General resistance training, whether it is on the field with a medicine ball, with broomsticks, or with barbells and dumbells, will go a long way. Start her early, and progress her with loading and difficulty as she matures mentally and physically. Strength matters a LOT to a youth, especially when they hit their growth spurts and get all gangly and awkward. You’re not making a bodybuilder out of her, you’re making a physically strong, resilient young athlete.
- Remember that children and adolescents are not just small adults. Don’t treat them like a mini-version of you. YOU might be able to get psyched for competitions twice a week when you get to scream at refs and the opposing teams parents. Your kid? Probably not ready to handle that pressure. Not yet at least. Give them time, and ease them into it. The big, put it all on the line games are good, but not all the time. Mental rest is important, just like physical rest.
- Remember that lastly, statistically speaking, your daughter is not the next Lolo Jones. More than likely, she won’t compete in the Olympics, or the world games, she won’t play for a college team, and she may not even continue into high school. That’s okay. If nothing else, remember that you are trying to instill a love of sports, and a love for getting out there, trying hard, and working up a sweat. If you ruin the experience for her, and she resents sports, not only will she remove her (albeit small) chances at one day being a great athlete, but you might remove her chances of being “halfway decent” if she can’t stand the sight of a soccer ball or a bat. In a world of rising obesity, we need great athletes and active, regular folks.
Check out Changing the Game Project if you want to read more.