By John O'Sullivan
“The Fulham coaches distilled the threat, defined the tactics and dictated the tempo at which they expected their team to play. It was a tough European tournament, featuring Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Anderlecht and Feyenoord, but it was deemed to be winnable.”
So begins Chapter 2 of the great book No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream by Michael Calvin about the English soccer youth academy system. It continues:
Their performance-planning was impeccable, their professionalism admirable. The missing ingredient, perspective, was supplied on the first night away in France during a routine bed check. Two of the players has a teddy bear on their pillow. A third slept in a nappy.”
“They were, after all, 9 years old!”
As I travel around the globe working with coaches, administrators, and talent identification and development experts, I like to read them this passage. Everyone usually chuckles – uncomfortably – because this is the adultified world of youth sports that many of us live and work in. It makes us uncomfortable because most people I meet can share their own story or example of this scenario.
This is an example of the professionalization of youth sports.
It is a race to the bottom, to do more, more, more at younger and younger ages, all in the name of “preparing them for the next level.” But sadly, in trying to “prepare them for the next level” we often simply replicate the physical, cognitive, and psychological load faced by adults at that level. And we forget two very important things:
Children are not mini-adults!
And the question we really need to ask ourselves is not “could we create this professionalized environment?” but “SHOULD we?”
And the answer to that second question is no!
I recently watched a video of the excitement as NASA scientists and engineers celebrated landing a craft on Mars. This was a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar undertaking, with massive consequences in the event of failure. And I got to thinking, did their third-grade math teacher yell, harass, bully and intimidate them into carrying the one, or learning their multiplication tables, because someday they might be one of the .01% who try and land a craft on another planet?
Of course not. They sat at child-size desks and did age appropriate work in an age appropriate environment in order to build a foundation for learning advanced mathematical skills later on, AND develop a love of math and science that eventually led them to NASA. Their success today lies not in being treated like an adult when they were a child, but in getting to experience their childhood, find their passion, and stay in the game long enough to actually get good at it.
Those of us in sport need to pay attention. We don’t best develop elite adult athletes by forcing them to forgo their childhood. They only get to be a 10-year-old once. And no matter how much ability they have, they still have a 10-year-old brain, 10-year-old needs, and 10-year-old maturity. Yet on a weekly basis, I hear stories of:
- children being “developed” in adult-centered environments, washing out, and then hearing “those kids don’t have what it takes.”
- Children not being given playing time in games AND in practices
- Early selection of “talented kids” and discarding of the “untalented” ones despite all the evidence of the ineffectiveness of doing this at pre-puberty ages (and even post-puberty, see the NFL draft for a multi-million dollar example of how poor we are at talent identification)
- Abusive and bullying coaching behavior with very young athletes
- The prevalence of the idea that if it is competitive, it can no longer be enjoyable
- The confusion of being a demanding coach with being a demeaning coach
- And so much more
I recently had an email conversation about this with Dr. Richard Bailey, the Head of Research at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education. He has been a full Professor at Canterbury, Roehampton, Birmingham and Liverpool in the UK and has directed studies that have influenced policy and practice both nationally and internationally. In other words, he is at the forefront of child development in sports and one of the most respected voices out there. Here is what he wrote specifically about early specialization, and in essence professionalization, in youth sports:
“This is one of the most contested topics in sports coaching. Part of the difficulty in unpacking the different challenges lies in the fact that it brings together scientific and ethical concerns. The scientific questions center on the effectiveness of specializing in one sport early, often training at high intensity. The ethical questions are about the appropriateness of treating often young children like professional athletes.”
- Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.
- A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
- In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
- Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
- Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.
So rather than rehash that all here, let’s talk about the morality of treating children like mini-adults and professionals. As Dr. Bailey wrote:
“It is absolutely certain, however, that the vast majority of these ‘talented’ players end up being dropped from the system. Almost all of them, in fact. It is also clear, I think, that the processes used to identify children as talented are highly questionable, often confusing early maturation and physique with potential ability. In practice, this means that many young children are recruited by clubs on a false promise of stardom. Nevertheless, large numbers of children are recruited into these training programs, often with the consent of over-eager parents, discouraged from playing other sports, required to commit large amounts of time and energy to training, potentially at the expense of their education and healthy social development. This is where the moral issues come in.”
As Dr. Bailey concludes:
“The most positive thing that can be said about the early specialization is that it may be no less effective than later specialization. But the potential risks of early specialization, including physical and psychological risks, but also social and educational risks, suggests to me that this is not a choice between two equally attractive options.”
It is high time that those of us who are concerned with the welfare of children in sports take a stand and stop the professionalization of youth sports. It is time for us to stop treating children like mini-adults. Let them be 10. Focus on winning the race to the right finish line. Because as Dr. Bailey says, this is not a choice between two equally attractive options. One of them lets children develop on their own timeline, and allows time for the talent that whispers to emerge.
The other throws 100 eggs against a wall and hopes one does not break and then calls it talent development.
It is time to stop asking if we could treat children like professionals because clearly we can and we do.
It is time to start asking whether we should treat them that way if we are truly concerned with their physical, emotional, psychological and personal development.
And the answer to that is clearly NO!
John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.