Home » Successful Sports Parenting Channel » Three Stages of Athletic Development: Sampling, Specializing, Investment

Three Stages of Athletic Development: Sampling, Specializing, Investment

One of two pathways towards elite performance in sports

Phase Two (Commitment/Specialization/)


  • Increasing commitment of young athlete to her chosen sport.
  • Extent of commitment is major issue faced by family, especially for the talented athlete.

Problem Areas

  • Excessive conflict 
    • Parents, and sometimes coaches, may have a different set of expectations or goals than the athlete, which often leads to conflict.
    • The athlete has to have, or rediscover, his own personal reasons for playing sports. In other words, she needs to see that participation has intrinsic, personal value. 
    • Only the strongest and most confident children have the skills to resist expectations of their parents and to fight for their own dreams.
  • Burnout 
    • Where the child gives up on her own dreams and adopts the goals of her parents or coach, she is doomed to failure and burnout often results.
    • When the external reasons for playing (to get a scholarship, to win a game, to impress a scout, to please a father) predominate over the intrinsic reasons (what I call the externalization of sports) burnout becomes likely. 
    • If athlete feels in control so that he views participation as part of his self-development, then sports can be a healthy part of growing up. If the athlete feels controlled, and feels that he is not making the decisions or developing as an individual, burnout is more likely. A study of fifteen adolescent athletes, who had been age-group champions in their sport but had then quit, found that the way high-level sports were organized contributed to the their decision to quit: they felt little control over their own lives, and felt that they had little identity outside of being an athlete. This lack of control and restricted identity cause a great deal of stress, and the sport ceased to be fun.
  • Under-Involved Parents
    • When parents display no interest whatsoever in the sporting activities of their children, it is very difficult for the young athlete to become committed to a sport. This can place a great burden on the coach, who often feels for the athlete and tries to make up for the parents' lack of support.
    • When parents are not involved in their child's activities, the few coaches who are likely to abuse a young athlete have an increased opportunity to engage in such abuse. This is why I encourage parents to form a good relationship with their child's coaches, and why I encourage coaches to be open to parents who want to know what goes on at practices and on trips to tournaments.

Guidelines For Parents

  • Encourage participation. Promote your child's interest in physical activities. This can be a challenge during a time of a child's development when there are many competing demands on a child's time.
  • Don't push. Tap into your child's natural love of physical activity and play. Unfortunately, many youth sports programs turn children off by being boring, repetitive, overly demanding, or insensitive to their needs. Look for "child centered" programs that emphasize fun and skill development. 
  • Provide emotional support: As your child deals with competition, be there with emotional support. Focus on helping your child learn valuable life skills.
  • Involve your child in decision-making regarding sport choices. This is the age for the child to learn to be self-reliant.
  • Reinforce and support your child's decisions and commitment. This is the time to learn about perseverance, commitment and delayed gratification.
  • Recognize likely shift in influence. Your child will start looking more to peers, teachers and coaches for guidance.
  • Communicate with coaches. Keep building good communication with coaches; teach your child to do likewise.

Now Available in KINDLE