There's a common perception in youth sports that focusing on a healthy and safe environment can detract from maximum performance. That's not so, a panel of experts commissioned by the International Olympic Commitee determined in a consensus published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Michael Bergeron, the president and CEO of Youth Sports of the Americas, was one of the authors. He wants people to know that the pathway to healthy, safe and sustainable youth athlete development is the same pathway to performance.
The panel met beginning in November 2014 with two major goals. First, to “highlight key considerations and challenges in competitive youth sport and critically evaluate the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development,” and, second, to “create guidelines for a sustainable model to develop healthy, resilient and capable youth athletes while providing opportunities for all level of sport participation and success.”
The result is a series of recommendations that include:
Don’t be so quick to determine who’s good and who’s not, particularly when athletes are 10 to 12 years old and entering a period of rapid growth. Often times those athletes thought to be more talented at that age are merely maturing faster. Have a system of inclusiveness, especially during that period of growth.
Also at that age children are highly vulnerable to injury and overload. A child who is identified as being good early on is often subjected to harder training, longer practices and more competition, which can lead to the stress and overuse injuries prevalent at that age.
Focusing more on foundational skills when young athletes are in a period of rapid growth will pay greater dividends after early adolescence than conditioning and competition.
A big part of the guidelines, Bergeron said, is recognizing that there is a great deal of individual variability at that age and adolescence isn’t one size fits all. Coaches don’t need to modify everything for every player, but should recognize that children need different things at different times.
Youth coaches should endeavor to educate themselves beyond tactics and rules in order to create the safest and healthiest environment for a very vulnerable segment of the population.
Coaches should strictly adhere to keeping children from competition when not fully recovered from an injury. Likewise, they should not practice or train in a way that would impact the injured area.
Finally, coaches should consider the well-being of the whole person and not create athletes who are overworked and psychologically overburdened with unsustainable expectations because of goals defined by success in sport.
“You’re not training a pro athlete on a multi-million dollar contract where you have one goal,” Bergeron said. “You have big responsibility to develop a person and help them through this process. Do it right, and if they have that genetic gift to excel, it might happen, but for everyone else it’s setting the foundation to be a successful person and healthy person.”
Added Bergeron, “That doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive and doesn’t mean you can’t put a winning team out there, but you need to be more inclusive and more understanding of why kids are really here and what are they are really doing.”