June 29, 2018

Youth sports and athletic development

As parents, we've likely experienced those moments of doubt: Are we doing enough to help our kids succeed? And one area where that's prevalent is youth sports.

It's a billion-dollar business in the U.S. Kids as young as 7 are in training camps, traveling the state (sometimes the country) on competitive teams, and parents often feel like if kids haven't been training before the age of 9, there's no point to trying a new sport because they'll be too far behind.

But there's another well-known stat: By the age of 13, approximately 70 percent of kids in the U.S. stop playing organized sports because it's no longer fun.

Dave Knight, manager of UW Health's Sports Performance program, is very familiar with the pressures youth athletes face. From funneling kids into organized sports by the age of 4, to career-ending overuse injuries in their teens, it's no wonder kids often lose their motivation for play.

But there are some ways to help. For starters, Knight suggests, help them learn to love being active.

"When kids start playing organized sports at a young age, they get into that stream and stay there," he said. "As a consequence, they don't necessarily get a chance to go out and explore and learn what their bodies can do. We don't place enough value on the benefits of free play."

When you let kids learn to love a sport, they'll spend time doing it — and Knight said it's not something parents can push.

"The harder you push kids to succeed in a sport, especially from a young age, the more they'll resist. But there's another reason, too. You can't predict adult success based on kids' success," said Knight.

While a parent might look with pride at an 8-year-old with a rocket for an arm, the reality is that skill doesn't mean they'll be good at 18 or 22. That's why it's important to help kids develop as athletes and not as "baseball players" or "basketball players."

Performance doesn't matter as much when kids are 10, 11 or 12 because their bodies will change significantly as they develop. And, as kids develop it's important to remember they have different needs. As Knight said — a 12-year-old is not half of a 24-year-old. With that in mind, the skills and activities they do should reflect where they are at.

"We see it all the time: Kids who are pushed into training more appropriate for adults, and that's detrimental to the development of the young athlete," Knight said.

A younger athlete, Knight explains, should focus on foundational skills, while older teen athletes who are closer to maturity can sustain a deliberate practice for longer periods of time. Young kids shouldn't be expected to do skill reps in the same way a teen athlete could.

But, Knight is also careful to point out it's not a one-size-fits-all situation— there can be wide variation among individuals of the same age. Even U.S. Soccer is recognizing the variation and piloting a program where teams are based on "developmental age" rather than chronological age, called bio-banding.

"It's important to recognize where kids are at," Knight said. "While there are methods to determine developmental age, a simple way is to consider a child's physical stature compared to their peers. Are they bigger? Smaller? It can offer a ballpark guideline for how to train."

Parents on the sidelines have no doubt seen the differences on the playing field — when kids are grouped by age, for example, there are often those who are substantially larger or smaller than other kids. That might lead some parents to look for an "edge" — something to help their kids be better on the field. But Knight comments that drills and camps focused on a single sport aren't necessarily the way to do that.

"It's important to give kids a broad skill set that will allow them to flourish," he said. "And we, as parents and coaches, need to adjust our perspective. A good coach can help kids learn to love a sport while developing a foundation of athletic skill. Repetitive skill drills do not accomplish that."

An analogy Knight shared is that of a mathematic equation.

"If we drill kids on 7 times 7, they will be able to answer that question quickly and without hesitation. But throw 7 times 9 at them, and they'll often stumble," he said. "That's what skill drills for sports can be like — without greater context, the drills won't translate to game play because kids aren't learning how to actually solve problems."

Free play for kids is critical to kids' development. Knight suggests for young kids — give them a ball, show them the goal and let them figure it out. Let them figure out how their body moves. And give them opportunities to continue figuring it out as they grow.

"The ages of 7 to 12 is kind of a 'golden age' of skill development," he said. "Brains are developing so fast and getting rid of patterns that don't serve us while adapting to skills that do. In that phase, we need to continuously challenge the body to adapt to new movements."

As teens continue to grow, in the 15 to 18 range, Knight says it's about training for the early 20s, when the body will experience significant gains in strength, speed and muscle mass.

"We want to help kids develop the fundamental skills to help them be active into adulthood and not run into injuries that they experience because their movement patterns have not been developed," he said.