Sports have been part of my life for 50 years as a player, coach or player personnel consultant to universities and professional teams in the NFL, MLB and NBA. Sports have changed dramatically during this time. While we reminisce about great players from the past, we are in a new era. Every aspect of sports is evolving quickly. For instance, the coverage of sporting events has been greatly enhanced by the digital age. Science has contributed to gains in sports nutrition, training, sports medicine and injury prevention. Equipment has also undergone many improvements and redesigns. The list of changes goes on and on.
Part of the reason we're in a new era is that athletes today can begin organized sports participation much earlier than in the past. There is greater access for youngsters to pursue the sport of their choosing. It wasn't all that long ago that girls and women had no opportunities to participate in sports because Title IX did not exist. Today, countless programs and leagues exist, no matter what sex, race or age. There's also been an explosion of ball fields and facilities devoted to sports.
Setting Age-Appropriate Expectations
To start early, one needs to find a sport that is age appropriate. It doesn't make much sense to ask a six year old to hit a fastball. It doesn't make much sense to ask this same six year old to throw a basketball through a 10 ft. high hoop. At such a young age, athletes need to be taught the basic fundamentals related to their sport. Obviously, this includes running, throwing and catching, and other activities that involve improving balance and engaging large muscle groups.
At young ages, athletes have physical and mental limitations. One example of a mental limitation is illustrated in experiments conducted by child psychologists. If you lay out one row of five pennies and ask a preschooler or even some children 5 or 6 years of age to count the pennies they will say that there are five. Then you lay out a second row of five pennies that are spread out more. Then ask the child to count this row. Again, they will answer with the number five. Then ask which row has more pennies. The child answers that the second, more spread out row has more. This is called egocentric thinking.
One application to sports is that the egocentric thinking child has trouble with pursuit. When they must run to the right spot to intercept a moving target, like a rolling soccer ball, they cannot lead the ball and they end up instead trying to follow it in a hooked-line pattern instead of a straight line. If you watch any soccer game involving six year olds you will quickly notice this phenomenon with the players bunching up into a tight cluster around the ball ("beehive soccer").
Recreational versus Travel
Another consideration for parents and their young players is whether to enroll in a recreational league or if it would be better to go for one of the premier or "competitive" leagues. The reason this is important is that the developing athlete may not end up getting valuable playing time if the coach is intent on winning and playing the best players. The player may actually develop more quickly playing on a team with less talented players because the coach rotates everyone into the game and possibly even play them at different positions. I know many parents who overlook this consideration because they are ego involved. They would rather their son or daughter play on a premier team because it gratifies the parent's ego. I have also seen cases where the child was miserable because they had to ride the bench.
Related to the above consideration is the issue of year round competition. Many teams, especially once you get to the competitive or premier level of any age group, engage in league play and tournaments throughout the entire year. It's not uncommon for parents to travel great distances to play in tournaments.
Drawbacks of Year-Round Play
There are problems with year round competition. While it may seem logical that playing a sport throughout the year would help the child develop, it is clear that this does not always happen. For one thing, there is some positive transfer from sport to sport. Playing some golf can help a hockey player on the ice. There's a carryover of eye-hand coordination. One study tracked a group of athletes who played soccer in junior high and then switched to football, comparing them to a group of peers who played just football. Players who switched ended up being better performers than those who just played football.
Year round competition can increase stress and the risk of overuse injuries. It can also force the player to specialize in one sport at a very early age. All you have to do is count the dwindling number of three-sport-lettered athletes in high schools.
Finally, athletes, parents and coaches often overlook the psychological development of their athletes. Very little is done to condition youngsters to handle the psychological demands of competition. Our firm is one of the few that offers athletes (12 and older) the opportunity to take an on-line psychological assessment and obtain feedback and suggestions for improvement and tips for parents. A companion report can also be generated for the athlete's coach. This helps improve coach-player relationships and gives the coach an edge when coaching the player.
In conclusion, starting early can be a healthy and positive experience. But doing so can also be a perilous path if certain factors are not taken into consideration. The sport should be age appropriate. The young athlete should be given playing time during games. Parents should carefully consider whether year-round competition and early specialization are appropriate. Athletes need to be developed, not just physically, but also psychologically.
Robert Troutwine, Ph.D. is the founder of Troutwine & Associates, Inc., a firm best known for its consulting work with numerous sports teams and programs, including teams in the National Football League and Major League Baseball as well as major college programs. To find out more about Dr. Troutwine and his work visit www.troutwine.com or his sport specific site at www.tapsport.com.