Youth Training: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the summer I did an online course on youth training presented by a trainer named Mike Boyle. He was the trainer for Boston University, the USA Women’s National Soccer Team, the Boston Red Sox and so on. He’s done much research on youth training as well as raised 2 children of his own in a sporting environment. He has a lot of experience and a tremendous amount of knowledge in the field, so I dug into this course to see what I could learn from his expertise.

What I learned is that we have some major issues in our youth sporting world. We have a significant number of youths that are dropping out of sports. In a Canadian study it states 82 percent of kids dropout because of parent pressure and burnout. What responsibility do us parents have in this problem?  We see things that we know are not right and we keep doing them. We can see that youth sports are becoming very professionalized and we let it happen. The cost of club sports has skyrocketed and has become very elitist. The wealthy and affluent seem to have the advantage. Most clubs now are money making organizations with structured environments instead of our youth going out to play sports with their friends using creativity and imagination. The club coaches feed us with fear that our kids must do this, or they will fall behind. The kids need this, or they will not get a college scholarship. We fall for this mentality because we don’t know anything different. Especially if it our first child going through the “system”. Did you know 4% of athletes go on to play their sport in college and 1% go on to play a professional sport? 

Parents like me need to take a hard look at how we are impacting this high dropout rate. Often, we think our kids are miniature adults. Parents organize and run youth sports. Here is an example: Often kids play on fields too big for their little bodies. Mike Boyle shows a video of an experiment where they supersized a soccer field. They made a field that was about 3x the size of a regular 11 v 11 field. This was like what an 11-year-old experiences on a regular sized field. The adults had a miserable experience. They had to run too much, and it was hard and not enjoyable. One takeaway was that only the bigger more athletic kids can keep up. Often, parents push back at the whole idea of small sided games for kids however we need to match field sizes to kids sizes to make the experience more enjoyable. In addition, parent often have unrealistic expectations of what kids can handle. Parents ideas of success are to practice longer hours (more is better), get a good education and focus harder whereas kids want to have fun, play shorter hours, want to specialize in sport at older ages and want it to be their passion and not their parents. Where is the disconnect? I’m sure this makes for a lot of arguments. Parents need to look at their kids from a kid lens and not from an adult lens. I love this quote from Mike Boyle, “Prepare the child for the path not the path for the child”. Often, we try to remove obstacles instead of letting our kids work through obstacles. Are we expecting too much from our kids?

Letting kids fail is necessary for their success and development. Kids need to experience success and failure. Failure is learning. For kids to be on stacked teams and never learn to lose, have disappointments, or cry, tend to give up in the end. An important mentality in sport is to have grit and determination. If early succeeders don’t experience the ups and downs of wins and losses, in the end when it counts they will give up and quit. Early succeeders of don’t have grit, are bad teammates and lack work ethic. Sometimes their first disappointment is in college where they find it very difficult to work through tough situations when helicopter parents are not there to rescue. It is our responsibility to teach the right lessons. It is not always the most important thing to be on the best team but to find great coaches that are teaching the game the right way and to be on teams that win some and lose some games, so the kids can experience both success and failure. 

The good is that there are youth sport organizations that are attempting to find solutions to the dropout rate in sports. The long-term athletic development model is one that gives ideas as to how we can make sports more enjoyable and keep kids engaged and participating long-term. There are certainly problems with this philosophy, however, of utmost importance is that athletics are a long-term process. It’s emphasis is on the process and not the wins or being perfect but on doing the right things because it’s the right thing to do. “It’s a marathon not a sprint” so “Let the kids play”. Both are great quotes from Mike.