How To Talk to Parents About “The Next Level”

If you’ve worked with young athletes very long, you’ve probably met “that” parent.  You know, the one with his/her kid’s entire scholastic/scholarship/sign-the-mega-contract future all planned out.

And the “kid” is only 7!  Oy!

Thankfully, that particular species of parent, Mykiddus Secondcomingus, is extremely rare. This annoying and sometimes fatal (to any hope of a childhood for the 7 year old in question) species is often mistaken for the less-dangerous, easily-confused species called Stellacus Oculus Parentus, or “Starry Eyed Parent.”

While often annoying, this species can be helped if you are patient, well-informed and willing to uplift their child while planting their own feet squarely back on terra firma.

Some simple rules of engagement:

DO NOT, under any circumstances, pronounce judgement on the child relative to talent. Remember, this species is reactive and protective and will snap right back. Instead, praise the child while discussing the remarkable level of talent, work ethic and sports balance exhibited by scholarship and pro athletes. Feel free to point out areas where their child has similarities to any “next level” athletes with whom you have had contact.

Example – “Wow, Mr. B, your little Janie sure is coachable. She reminds me of (insert athlete name here.) When he was working with me, he really took instruction and correction well. It’s just one of the elements coaches at that next level are looking for. (Athlete name) had that trait, too. He developed his athletic skill-set, kept a great mindset, played a couple different sports and kept his love for the game. And it paid off, for sure.”

GENTLY discuss the value of developing the athletic movement skill-set (I define it as strength, power, speed, agility, quickness, balance, coordination, mental acuity and tactical decision-making) as it relates to sports success. Include a gentle reminder of the value of playing multiple sports as it relates to cross-over athletic skills, how doing so helps maintain a healthy sports mindset and even assists with stress management. Remember that this species is myopic regarding their child and the opportunities to play at the ‘next level.’ Any suggestion of slowing the inevitable march of their child to the scholarship or Olympic podium may result in complete neural and emotional shutdown, and your chance to help their child will be lost.

Example – “Does Janie play any other sports? Is there anything else she’s talked about trying? Oh, I realize this is her sport. She clearly loves it and has aptitude, for sure. I always found it interesting how some of my athletes who were real studs in one sport loved to play one or even two others just because they were fun to play or because their friends played them. When I dug a little deeper, that second sport was often like the weekend golf game or hobby – it helped them de-stress from the important competition of their primary sport. Just something to think about.”

SHARE personal insights about the college or club sport environment. Always begin with the positives, since this species doesn’t possess independent insight on this subject and may recoil at any challenge to their worldview regarding their child and the ‘next level.’

Example – “Janie sure has a great future and a lot of excitement ahead! I remember when (insert athlete name here) was being recruited. Wow! What a whirlwind process! It was exciting for her to be courted by some great schools and to feel wanted. It got a little harrowing waiting for those final calls and letters, though, but she handled it really well. The most interesting lesson I think we learned in that process was that when the scholarship had been awarded, the work was really just beginning. Four or five years of being a student athlete, representing a school and a sport program and trying to maintain a decent balance between all of those. So challenging, but so rewarding.”

OFFER SUPPORT for the entire process, no matter the outcome. Stress the great qualities their young athlete already has, and the ones you see that can be fostered and help them really enjoy sports and life.

Example – “Janie is such a great kid! Always happy, always smiling. And you may not realize this, but she is a great influence here in the facility. She focuses on the work or game at hand, supports other kids and really shows some leadership. You’ve done a great job with her! I just hope we can continue to foster those great qualities. If so, she’ll be a success no matter what path her life takes!”

SHARE the “facts of life” only if absolutely necessary and NEVER before establishing trust. This species will rapidly retreat to the Univ. of Google to refute your every fact with “facts” (usually anecdotal stories about the exception rather than the rule) of their own. Remember, the life of a child is at stake here…okay, so that’s a little extreme, but you know what I mean! Discuss facts and statistics in a way that supports hopes and dreams, but injects some reality into the process.

Example – “What’s great is that as a softball player, Janie has options across all 3 NCAA Divisions of college sports, plus NAIA and Junior Colleges when the time comes. I mean, a little less than 2% of HS softball players play at the D1 level, but the great thing is, if she gets good grades, there are lots of other options for scholarships at all 3 levels.”

There are “facts of life” that both species of parent needs to understand. Like so much of life, though, it’s all in the presentation and subsequent perception. Always try to ADD possibility, not take it away. When discussing the “scholarship” question, remember that D1 is NOT the only level at which scholarship money can be found for athletes. Yes, at the D2 and D3 levels, academics will be a qualifier in many cases, but if a program wants a player, well, where there’s a will, there’s a way…

You will need to have your ducks in a row when discussing the possibility of scholarships for athletes, as well as the possibility of play at professional or Olympic levels. Here are 2 resources, both from the NCAA, that can help:

http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics

http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-professional-athletics

and a bonus resource:

http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/probability-competing-beyond-high-school

In addition to discussions of the possibilities for success, we also need to have discussions about what can go wrong in the athletic development process. One of the biggest battles we face is the rising pressure on children and parents to “specialize” in one sport from an early age.

As we know, early sport-specialization is the surrender of play, practice and development in multiple sports in favor of exclusively playing, practicing and developing skills in a single sport. The pressure being applied by the $15 billion a year youth sports industry is pushing parents and children to immerse themselves in one sport at an early age.

One additional factor to consider here is the “chain play” effect. When the oldest sibling chooses a single sport at an early age, what impact does that have on sports selection by younger siblings? How many times have we seen children “choose” a sport because their older brother or sister chose it? Or even because it was “more convenient” for all children to play the same sport? (Think about the multi-layer discounts offered by many clubs and organizations and the convenience of maybe not having to drive to dozens of sports venues for all the kids to play different sports.)

One way to discuss the value of multi-sport play over early specialization is the “pain factor.” No parent wants their child to suffer. Speaking about injury risk is a great way to underline the power of multi-sport experience for children. And the evidence is both clear and mounting. I’ll discuss just one example here.

Not long ago, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) undertook a study to determine the impact of early-sport specialization on injury rates among high school athletes.

While there are a few minor flaws in the study, which I’ll address momentarily, the study sheds a fairly strong negative light on early sport-specialization as it relates to injuries to high school athletes.

The study can be found here:

http://www.nfhs.org/articles/injury-rates-higher-for-athletes-who-specialize-in-one-sport/

There are 2 minor flaws in the study.

The first is that it excludes lacrosse and field hockey, which are not offered at the high schools studied (all in Wisconsin, the state site of the study.) This may be statistically significant because field hockey tends to have a high rate of early specialization and lacrosse players tend to suffer a considerable number of non-catastrophic injuries. Athletes in both sports tend to experience higher-than-average numbers of head injuries, including concussions.

The second is that the study relies heavily on self-reporting and the completion of a questionnaire by the athletes participating. While this alone is not a reason to discount the study, it may slightly skew the results for lack of independent or empirical observation of the athletes.

All that said, it is an excellent study with some shocking results. Here are 4 important take-aways:

1. Children who specialize in one sport from a young age have significantly higher risk of injury – nearly double the risk, based on reporting.

2. Girls are more likely to specialize in one sport than boys (nearly 50% more likely.)

3. Soccer has the highest rate of specialization at 47%, followed by volleyball at 43%. Both of these sports have inordinately high injury rates, especially for girls.

4. Last, there’s this: “In addition, specialized athletes were twice as likely to sustain a gradual onset/repetitive-use injury than athletes who did not specialize, and those who specialized were more likely to sustain an injury even when controlling for gender, grade, previous injury status and sport.”

Read that twice. We’re talking about repetitive stress injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome in office workers, except these are children!

With the seemingly complete takeover of sports by organized youth sports, travel and competitive showcase sports organizations, these take-aways are alarming and should be a clarion call to parents and coaches to institute change in the way youth sports are organized, marketed and managed in the US.

However, once again, money talks. There are billions of dollars being spent in youth sports, often in the hopes of enhancing the child’s potential to receive a college scholarship in relation to the ability to play a sport. When we consider that, according to the NCAA, about 2% of all high school athletes will receive a college scholarship to play a sport, youth sports organizations could well be accused of fraudulent subliminal marketing.

By the way, the average value of those scholarships received by the elite few? Approximately $11,000 a year.

So an accounting question seems appropriate here – does the value of the scholarship outweigh the co-pays, out-of-pocket expense, pain, suffering and lasting mental and emotional trauma of a catastrophic injury?

The Long-Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD) is a model designed to improve overall athletic ability, counter injury risk among athletes who do specialize and help young athletes grow and discover the sports that make them happy, fulfilled and competitively satisfied. This is counter to the perversely intuitive concept of training a child in one sport from an early age so that he or she will be more acutely skilled than peer athletes and have a better chance of succeeding in the competitive and scholarship “marketplace.”

LTAD views athletic development as a broad-based set of skills which can then be applied in as narrow a setting as desired to create a sport-based outcome. This can be repeated in a variety of sports, should the athlete so desire.

In other words, develop the athletic skill-set so the athlete can use those skills to be a player in any sport they choose! Here’s a visual on what the model looks like:


The International Youth Conditioning Association has created a great course to help Strength, Fitness and Sports Coaches become familiar with the LTAD model and how to apply it’s principles to help athletes get better, be happier and play longer. You can find it right here:
IYCA Long-Term Athletic Development Program

Children begin playing a sport because it’s fun, and often because their friends are playing. Early-specialization can be just as detrimental to a child’s desire to play a sport as repetitive tasks and a boring work routine can be for an adult’s desire to excel at work. When we add to that the truth about early sport-specialization and injuries, it becomes nearly impossible to find a positive argument in favor of sport-specialization.

If we are going to help parents understand the risks of early sport-specialization, immersion and upward play pressure, we need to be armed with the right info. I’ve tried to supply you with some of that information here, as well as a field guide to several sports parents species and how to address them!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/recruiting-insider/wp/2017/09/06/youth-sports-study-declining-participation-rising-costs-and-unqualified-coaches

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/recruiting-insider/wp/2017/09/06/youth-sports-study-declining-participation-rising-costs-and-unqualified-coaches

https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Recruiting%20Fact%20Sheet%20WEB.pdf

With over 18 years of in-the-trenches experience with athletes ages 6 to 60, Phil Hueston brings a unique skill-set to the improvement of his athletes.  The author of the Amazon best-seller “Alchemy; Where the Art and Science Collide in Youth Fitness,” Phil believes strongly in the application of sound training science and skillful coaching art.  His client list includes professional athletes, collegiate athletes as well as thousands of youth athletes, adult athletes and people who want to move, feel and look their best and bounce back from the many challenges life can lay on them.  Phil has been the co-owner of All-Star Sports Academy in Toms River, NJ, one of the largest and most successful youth and family fitness centers in New Jersey since 2008. He was named “Coach of the Year” by the IYCA for 2012-2013.  Phil’s personal website is coachphilhueston.com, and he can be contacted at phil.hueston@hotmail.com

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