Taming the athlete meme

By | May 3, 2021

Treating young athletes as if they were adults is one of the longest-running problems in youth sports. Cutting athletes from teams, traveling to numerous, large, full-weekend competitions, and getting caught up in the megawatt hoopla that usually accompanies such events subjects youngsters to pressures and training they’re not ready for and from which the majority don’t benefit.

Practice routines and competitive models with a professional look and feel neither develop robust athletes nor encourage youngsters to stay involved in sport activities. Young athletes need more play, fewer competitions, more technical instruction and, most importantly, opportunities to learn a full range of fundamental movement skills. This can only happen without the pomp that surrounds high-level sport events.

Copying the look and feel of collegiate and professional sports can be partly blamed on the athlete meme; the go-to definition of an athlete that exists throughout sport in the United States. The “athlete” is usually a 19-year-old, male, college football player, probably on scholarship. While this image may not be universal it’s widespread enough to make the point.

Anyone who follows any kind of sport in the United States or watches any of the ubiquitous sports channels knows that collegiate football is the window through which we see all sport, even at the youth level. It’s easy to see the meme in use anytime sports are being discussed on ESPN, in the press, or at the local watering hole. When you hear the word “athlete” ask yourself who it refers to. It’s likely that the meme will be shaping the discussion because the go-to athlete image is the one we tend gravitate to.

The meme is part of the reason why some youth sport leagues build up the hype surrounding contests with marching bands, cheerleaders, and other “hey, look at us” activities. Coaches, administrators, and parents have seen the pomp surrounding other events like the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games and it seems natural and fun to add this element of spectacle to youth sports. The notion that it may be inappropriate is hardly ever considered.

“But what’s wrong with it? The kids like it,” the argument goes. The problem is that it’s not just the hype surrounding the contest but the whole mindset that leads to it and the circumstances that follow.

Although it may be popular to say that children are not merely small adults, that’s exactly how overhyped youth sports treats them. Along with the hype comes scaled-down but still inappropriate training regimens, frequent competitions, and pressure from coaches, parents, and others to perform. Some early-maturing youngsters might survive this environment and even appear to thrive in it, but for the majority of youngsters this type of sport experience is off-putting and usually leads to premature dropout from youth sports.

The meme makes it harder for youngsters who show little athletic ability early on to have good youth sport experiences. Late maturers get little attention from coaches and scant praise for their efforts and are usually outperformed by their bigger, stronger, and faster early maturing counterparts. These youngsters are prone to dropping out of sport prematurely because their experience simply isn’t enjoyable.

But their early maturing teammates are hardly better off. Because they are “talented” in the eyes of coaches and parents they receive little skill instruction. They may not be doing things correctly but since they are bigger, stronger, and faster than their peers their less than perfect skills are usually more than what’s required to perform well in the youth sport environment.

The instruction that coaches do provide is filtered through the athlete’s 10-year-old perspective that questions the need for it. If a young player can kick the ball into the goal more times than his teammates then why waste time learning to do it a different way?

But as these athletes age they find that others who were taught properly while younger are now the stars. Speed and strength even out as children age and the once phenomenal 10-year-old is now an athlete with limited skills and poor technique. The young star discovers that he is just another kid fighting for playing time amongst better athletes. He is a prime candidate for burnout.

The athlete meme shapes the way we view, conduct, and understand sport in our society. But it makes it hard for us to see youth sport participants as young athletes who need a different educational model from their older counterparts.

If we can design and deliver sport programs that address development issues then the benefits can be far-reaching: youngsters will have more enjoyable experiences making it more likely that their sport involvement will be long-term; they will have the physical skills to participate in a variety of activities as they age leading to active lifestyles and longer lives; and the country will have better performances from national level athletes because those athletes will have had a much stronger foundation of preparation that started with their first youth sport experience.

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