Parents, coaches and trainers want to see their kids succeed. In 20+ years of coaching I don't think I've ever run across one that hasn't.
So why do we have such a screwed up athletic development model which is churning out too many injured kids, and too many who lose their passion for the sport they once loved at such young ages?
Once you open the box of year-round competitive schedules in sports, as it is now, it becomes very hard to close it. This is unlikely to change.
And the reality that only so many kids can play at once means some will get left behind at times.
But there are real, practical solutions to improving the system for our kids in just about every sport out there right now.
Of course there are other ideas we could add, but here are three that could be done immediately for the betterment of so many of our young athletes out there.
Create Better Lines of Communication Between Team Coaches & Sports Performance Coaches
In 21st Century America, kids who want to excel in any given sport are going to be playing that sport often. And almost without exception, they're going to be doing it under the structure of a club team or AAU program.
More and more of those same eager kids are now also finding a way to get into athletic development programs on the side, because they know it gives them a competitive advantage.
Rarely, however, is there any communication about a player between their sport coach and the performance coach.
I feel like most of this comes from the professional courtesy of assuming the other person knows what they're doing, so we must be on the same page.
But so many things about a player could be improved by direct, semi-regular communication between the two.
First, they can share info on what they see in their environment as the greatest need for improvement.
To give one example, a sport coach may see a player tiring too early in games, where the performance coach may detect an inefficiency in their running stride. Strong communication would help the sport coach to remind a player to focus on their stride a bit more when they see issues in practice (or games) where the performance coach can re-write workouts to put this athlete in fatiguing situations first before running sprints, to challenge their ability to run properly when fatigued.
Second, communication allows for coordination of long-term development scheduling over time. For sport and performance coaches to look together at the next 6 or 12 months of the competitive schedule, they can come up with a plan for when to spend more time emphasizing physical development (down times on competitive schedules) and more on tactics (heavy competitive times).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, coaches who work together well and have different areas of expertise can improve their coaching skills for that player and all the others they work with. As a performance coach, I'd love to understand more about specific technical skills we can be tweaking our drills for in each sport. Conversely, to be able to share a sprint or power technique cue a sport coach can use for all their players would magnify our ability to help others.
Improving lines of communication between coaches in different areas of the athlete's world is a win-win-win scenario for both coaches, and the kid.
Limit Kids To 1 Competitive Team Per Season
One of the symptoms of a lost focus on long-term development is a trend where kids are playing on two or three teams at a time.
I've never heard a good reason why this is beneficial for a player's long-term growth. Whatever the reason for it - not wanting to turn on a commitment, getting more playing time, etc - it's never a best case scenario for the athlete themselves.
Playing in games does not develop kids. Practices, training and skill work do those things. When you play on multiple teams at once you tip the balance towards competition, and naturally have to sacrifice some of the practice, training, or individual skill work time to do so.
To again use the academic analogy, this would be like taking tests all the time but never doing any work in between to prepare for those tests. Ridiculous, right? Yet that's what kids playing on multiple teams at once are doing to their physical development.
And the thing that almost always gets overdone is conditioning, both in practices and games. This is what wears down muscles, ligaments, tendons and even bones a little bit at a time, leaving them more susceptible to the non-contact injuries we see far too often today.
Taken in that light, it's really no wonder why injury and burnout rates continue to climb.
Implement 'Personal Development Plans' For Each Player
With a singular focus each season AND strong communication between physical and sport development coaches, the idea of putting together a complete development plan for every player is possible.
Think of a scorecard where every single trait necessary for elite success in a sport is created - shooting, hitting, passing, etc on the sport side and flexibility, speed, strength, etc on the physical side.
With this in place, each player is evaluated across the board to create a profile of skills that are elite, average, and needs work.
Now the player's time and energy is driven towards their own biggest needs. Perhaps they need to cut down their workout time to spend more time on a specific sport skill holding them back. Or they have to ramp up their workouts, even in-season if necessary, to build the physical skills limiting their performance.
Perhaps this means less playing time for awhile, or a move to a developmental level so they can take risks without the pressure of having to succeed immediately.
What would come of this?
Now each kid has measurable criteria and a clear explanation of what they need to do to improve. With coaches on both sides ready and willing to give them strategies to improve, they have all the resources at their disposal to go about working towards it.
This would cut down immensely on the frustration kids feel when they are failing but don't know what to do about it.
And it also puts the emphasis back on long-term development. Every sport has it's story of a mega-star who experienced failure early on, only to come back and be one of the best in their sport. What is often left out in those stories is that each of them likely had a coach who told them what they needed to work on to get to the top.
Now to be fair, not one of these ideas is unique. And to be honest, I kind of cheated in coming up with the list.
This is simply how any successful professional sports team who drafts and pays million dollar contracts would develop their players.
It's time we treat our younger athletes in much the same way.