Avoid Unrealistic Expectations of Young Athletes
Competitive success in sport at an early age can have very limited relevance in predicting the future potential of a young athlete. In fact, predictions about the future potential of an athlete under the age of thirteen are precarious at best.
Children grow and develop at different rates. Maturity affects performance, and in children, it can be the determining factor in a sporting competition.
There can be a huge difference between early and late developers. Some children begin puberty very early and some very late. An early developer can be much taller and much heavier than a late developer. At an extreme, children of the same chronological age may differ in physical characteristics by as much as four years. Thus, the age-group system used in many sports may lead to two athletes of the same age – one with the immature under-developed body of an 11-year-old and the other with the body of an over-developed 14-year-old – competing against each another. The consequences of such a pairing in a sports competition setting are obvious.
Children of the same age may differ physically by as much as four years.
In activities that require strength, speed, and power, the more mature child will usually perform better than their less-developed peers. The more mature child may have a lot of early success in sport. They may out-perform others simply because of their size and strength – not because of better technique, more talent or more effort. They may be bigger and faster and stronger, but not necessarily better. Towards the end of adolescence, late developers can surpass and become better athletes than early developers.
Both early and late developers create difficult challenges for parents and coaches. Early developers become used to early success and winning easily. If not handled carefully, their expectations and ego can be crushed as their peers begin to catch up in their physical development. Suddenly, competitors that they were beating easily begin to beat them. This can lead to the early developer becoming discouraged and dropping out of the sport.
Alternatively, late developers can be discouraged by a lack of early success. This can lead to low feelings of competency for the activity, which is a key contributor to participants leaving a sport.
A great tip for parents and coaches to remember is to always treat a child’s “success” or “failure” in sport in the same way. In other words, don’t go “over-the-top” in your reactions following a performance; and continue to provide support and encouragement, regardless of the outcome.
Treat sport “successes” and “failures” in the same way.
Parents and coaches should not get over-excited about a young athlete’s early sporting success and create unrealistic expectations of them. Do not risk a child’s enjoyment of sport by creating goals that he or she is unlikely to attain. Participation in sport should be an end in itself, not a means for future stardom. Alternatively, parents and coaches must encourage and nurture late developers to keep them in the sport long enough to benefit from their eventual maturity.
Do you have any tips for dealing with early sporting success?
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- Brandon, R., “A Fitness Specialist says: if you’re training child athletes, remember not to treat them as adults in miniature”, Coaching Young Athletes, 2004, Peak Performance Publishing, pp 13-24
- LeBlanc, J. & Dickson L., Straight Talk About Children and Sport, 1997, Coaching Association Of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario
- Quinn, R., Coach’s Little Book of Wisdom, 2003, The Globe Pequot Press, Guildford, Connecticut
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Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.