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Three Stages of Athletic Development: Sampling, Specializing, Investment

One of two pathways towards elite performance in sports

Phase Three: Proficiency/Committment


  • Athletics become the central feature of talented athlete's life. When an athlete is talented and strives to develop that talent to the fullest, this phase requires long hours of training, intense coaching or studying of the sport, and participation in very competitive events. The athletic role becomes a central feature of the young person's life.
  • Goal setting becomes important for the average athlete. For most athletes, however, this phase involves becoming good enough to reach one's goals, whether that goal be playing on an intramural team or being good enough to make the high school junior varsity.

Problem areas

  • Unsupportive parents. Parents who are critical of their child's efforts, who react negatively to continued participation, and who express doubts about the potential for success can be an obstacle.
  • Overly competitive youth sports programs. Instead of promoting mass participation, most focus on a talented few (often failing them as well) and ignore the needs of the rest. Such programs turn young people away from sports in huge numbers. Limited resources and facilities deny many youth athletes opportunities to participate. Children will stop dropping out youth sports programs if the programs meet their needs. If adults stop organizing these programs on the basis of their own needs, great changes are possible. Perhaps such changes can also begin to permeate our high school and colleges. Can you imagine what such institutions might be like if sports programs were developed for all students, not just for an elite few who provide entertainment for the rest?

Guidelines For Parents

  • The goal for a healthy young adult is personal competence. Support the emotional and financial independence of your child.
  • Provide continued emotional support and a refuge from the pressures of competition 
  • Accept the authority of the coach and become less prominent in the decision-making. Focus on parenting rather than coaching. An effective parent sets limits and expectations.

Common Principles

Some fundamental principles apply, regardless of the phase. The most basic is the notion that the young individual must be supported to gradually assume responsibility for making her own decisions and setting her own goals. If parents, coaches, or administrators impose their own goals and ignore what the young athlete wants, problems are sure to follow. Responsibility must be taught and modeled during the exploration phase, encouraged during the commitment phase, and supported during the proficiency phase.

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