Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, Winter 2018.
As a 6th grader dominated a camp that I directed, I asked the organizer to move up the player to the older age group that worked out later. He said that they had asked him to move up, but he wanted to stay with his friends. The player was the tallest and most skilled player in the camp; in the 7th and 8th grade group, he no longer would have been the tallest, but he likely would have been the most skilled. Most adults view this as a lost opportunity because he did not challenge himself, and many coaches or ex-players would characterize him as weak because he avoided the greater challenge. Many may see this as a sign of his generation, and all of its faults.
Instead, his physical size and exceptional skill mislead us. We look at him dominate smaller children and forget that emotionally and socially, they are his peers. He may be physically tall, but he is emotionally and socially young. Playing against older players may benefit his skill development or his physical development, but these decisions must factor in the entire child, not just his visible size or shooting skill. Is playing with older players right for his current bio-psycho-social development, to use a term from Dr. Martin Toms of Birmingham University?
After I spoke to him, he came to both sessions; the early session to play with his friends, and the later session to challenge himself against better players, a challenge that he handled. Ultimately, this was the best mix, and one that factored in the total child from a holistic viewpoint, not one focused solely on his sporting success.
Over the summer, an 8th grader from Chicago verbally committed to attend DePaul University as part of its 2022 men’s basketball recruiting class. I learned of the commitment because he had attended clinics that I had directed in Chicago, although I have not seen him since he was in 6th grade. As early as 4th grade, high schools were keeping an eye on him. This is a tad extreme, but not abnormal in today’s youth sports landscape. The end goal of youth sports has shifted over the past two generations. Whereas youth sports once promoted fun, skill development, participation, and friendship, youth sport now is a billion-dollar business focused on procuring scholarships and producing professional players.
Because of this shift in goals and objectives, we lack the patience to allow children to develop in a slow, appropriate manner, and instead rush this development, which was my initial reaction with the tall, skilled 6th grader. When I coached the 8th grader, he was talented and very coachable, and I hope that continues, but research suggests that this environment — one which pushes children and pre-teens into “elite” competition —neglects the child’s social, emotional, and psychological needs. This rushed development manifests itself in early specialization and the professionalization of our youth sports, such as televised youth championships and national rankings of pre-teens; every aspect of youth sport now sells the idea that children are almost-professionals and require professional training, facilities, and competitions.
We ignore the psychological and emotional impact of this rush from developmental to competitive and competitive to elite at younger ages because of their precocious size or prodigious skill. When a 15-year-old basketball player walks into the gym and towers over his coach, or a 12-year-old Little Leaguer mashes a 375-foot home run on national television, we forget that these are children. This rush to elite competition may hinder skill development, which tends to be the primary concern, but the negative psychological effects may have greater consequences in terms of long-term success and happiness.
A Danish study found that the most crucial characteristic of the transition into a high performance or elite environment is a “shift in the social logic of the sport from fun, enjoyment and being together to seriousness, competition and investment” (Larsen et al., 2012). Managing these transitions successfully is a prerequisite for a long and successful career, whereas failure to cope with the demands of transitions may lead to premature career termination (Stambulova, 2009; Stambulova, Alfermann, Statler & Côté, 2009). On a smaller scale, the 6th grader was not prepared psychologically to make this transition away from fun and togetherness to seriousness and investment. Naturally, this must occur for him to pursue elite sports (college or professional), but an earlier transition does not necessarily help his pursuit. Instead, an immature athlete likely lacks the psychological skills and emotional maturity to cope with these heightened demands.
Those who progress to an elite level take responsibility for their own learning and progress (Elferink-Gemser et al., 2016; Jonker et al., 2009; Toering et al., 2010). They “decide that it’s not enough to simply be an obedient cog in the development machine — they go farther, reaching beyond the program, deciding for themselves what their workouts will be, augmenting and customizing and addressing their weaknesses on their own” (Coyle, 2011). This becomes difficult when coaches, parents, and trainers dictate every second of a child’s sporting existence, rather than empowering the child to decide for himself. By allowing the 6th grader to make decisions for himself, he was in control. When I expressed my confidence in him to succeed with the older players, and allowed him to come to the session with his friends too, he took responsibility for himself. He made the decision. Now, he has started to take ownership of his development, which is a key factor in succeeding at a high level.
As another example, this summer, a girl headed to a local NCAA D2 school showed up for numerous workouts at the junior college where I coach now. She turned down my offer in the spring, then randomly showed up in the gym one day. She had my number from when I recruited her, and she texted me almost every day for about three weeks to see our schedule. On most days, she took uber to the gym because her single mom was at work with the car. She made the decision that she wanted to work out, and she found a way; she took ownership of her improvement rather than waiting for a coach or a parent or a trainer to organize something for her.
A critical event in one’s athletic career is the transition from talented junior to the elite senior level, or for most U.S. athletes, from high school to college. This transition is described as a very difficult one, and many athletes acknowledge their failure to cope with it (Stambulova et al., 2009). Rather than transitioning as 17 and 18 year-olds moving to college competition, we have created an environment that encourages this transition in middle school, as with the 8th grader. If many older athletes struggled or failed to cope with the transition, what can we expect from pre-teens?
Among the most prominent demands involved in this transition are learning to balance sporting goals with other life goals, reorganizing one’s lifestyle to fit life as an elite athlete, finding one’s individual path in sport, coping with the pressure of selections, winning prestige among peers, judges and coaches, and maintaining positive relationships (Stambulova, 2009). Delaying this transition allows a child to develop greater psychological skills to complement his prodigious physical skills in order to cope with and thrive through these transitions. When this transition is forced upon a child, he or she may not be prepared emotionally or psychologically, and the lack of preparation may lead to frustrations, struggle, and quitting.
Ultimately, struggle is good for one’s development. Struggle forces one beyond one’s comfort zone, and it is the adaptation to increased demands that stimulates growth. However, with children especially, these struggles should be small hurdles or slightly beyond the child’s current level, not exponential leaps forward. The 6th grader eventually played with slightly older players; he does not, however, need to train like a professional player or devote his entire life to basketball at this age. He can leave the transition to elite competition to his late teens.
Unfortunately, the 8th grader has transitioned to the world of elite competition. This level of elite is in name more than action, as elite, to me, refers more to those competing for world championships as opposed to higher prep player rankings. However, his commitment has changed his environment. His name will be on web sites, and people will write about his games. A bad game will result in writers and anonymous commenters poking holes in his game and questioning his ability, likely calling him overrated. Does an 8th grade need or deserve that much attention and scrutiny? Does it help his transition to an elite level? If he has the emotional maturity, social safety net of supportive peers and family, and psychological skills to cope, he may develop, learn and thrive because of the experiences; without those tools and support, he may lose the joy of playing and the motivation to improve. Are the benefits worth the risk, or would the child be better off resisting the allure of the scholarship and recruiting offers to progress at his own speed once his emotional and psychological maturity has caught up to his physical prowess?
Coyle, D. (2011). The new way to identify talent: The G-factor. The Talent Code blog, December 2.
Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., Coelho-E-Silva, M.J., & Visscher, C. (2011). The marvels of elite sports: how to get there?. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(9), 683-84.
Jonker, L., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Toering, T.T., Lyons, J., & Visscher, C. (2010). Academic performance and self-regulatory skills in elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(14), 1605-14.
Larsen, C. H., Alfermann, D. & Christensen, M. K. (2012). Psychosocial skills in a youth soccer academy: A holistic ecological perspective. Sport Science Review, 21(3-4), 51- 74.
Stambulova, N. (2009). Talent development in sport: The perspective of career transitions. In E. Tsung-Min Hung, R. Lidor & D. Hackfort (Eds.), Psychology of sport excellence (pp. 63-74). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Stambulova, N., Alfermann, D., Statler, T. & Côté, J. (2009). Career development and transitions of athletes: The ISSP position stand. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7, 395-412.
Toering, T.T., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Jordet, G., & Visscher, C. (2009). Self- regulation and performance level of elite and non-elite youth soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(14), 1509-17.