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The Talented Youth Athlete

The Talented Youth Athlete - Separating the Sport from the Person.

Currently, in my sport, we are fully in the middle of the Nationals. It’s a fun event, with over 1700 athletes from the ages of 5 up to 70. You see a range of seriousness, ability levels and family dynamics. Here, of course, you see all the best kids in the country (and from other parts of the world too!) so seeing the outliers is pretty easy and common.

The parents and families of these supremely talented youth athletes have spent time, resources, and in many cases, put their own lives on hold to create the best opportunities for these kids. There is no doubt in my mind that they love and adore their kids, but it has also helped to highlight some interesting dynamics that as coaches and parents we should explore:

  1. Separating Johnny who Snowboards from Johnny the Snowboarder:Regardless of how talented a young athlete is, and how well adjusted and mature he or she is, we must all remember that essentially, these are developing human beings we are speaking about. They don’t have the same reasoning or life skills that an adult has. A worrying trend that anecdotally seems to be growing, is seeing these young athletes losing their own identities and simply seeing their self-worth in how well they do in their chosen sport. It is not helped by overzealous and over enthusiastic coaches and parents that put these kid athletes on a pedestal, and who put their own lives and persona on hold for the sake of the kid athlete. It’s a slippery slope for kid athletes. It makes a very black and white world for them, and they only feel good with success in the competitive arena. This is exacerbated by the reaction and actions of coaches and parents who go “all in” on a youngster’s career. It’s essential that coaches and parents celebrate the kid as a person, and where their success as an athlete is a result or reflection of the athlete being a well-rounded, well-adjusted child.

  2. From Mom to Moach, from Dad to Doach:A parent’s role, (and one I am lucky enough to hold myself), is the most important in a child’s life. Having a child is a life-time commitment...and the greatest job in the world! We are seeing throughout youth sports parents being more and more involved in their kids’ athletic lives, and in some cases, an over stepping of boundaries. As a coach, I don’t take it for granted the trust parents give me to help their kids develop as people and athletes. I see it as an absolute honor, one I hold dear. I like to consider myself a professional coach. I see the coach, the athlete and the parent as a team, and each with defined roles. A clouding of these roles can be very detrimental for the youth athlete. Kids look to their parents for support, and I would say rarely go out of their way to disappoint their parents. They are the most key role models in their lives. They look to their coaches to help them build skills in a sport THEY are passionate about, and help them build some life skills to help them cope with the stresses. Coaches help them find their true potential and STOKE for a sport. When mom or dad move over that boundary into the role of Moach or Doach, it creates confusion for the athlete. Inevitably, they are giving conflicting information. They don’t want to not listen to their parents, but also have a relationship...often very close relationships, with their coaches that they trust. It puts the kiddo into a position of stress and confusion. Coaches need to understand that parents want what is best for their kids, but parents also need to understand that for coaches, their only wish is to see the athlete succeed as well.

  3. Let the youth athlete own their sport:Coaches and parents MUST understand that this is the athletes’ journey. We are just here to facilitate it for the athlete. This is NOT the parent or coaches’ journey. I believe there are STARS and STAR-MAKERS. Our job as coaches and parents is to give our kids the chance of success in their sport. Success is not just competitive results. Its growth as a person, its learning life lessons that will hold the kids in good stead for far into the future and give them highly happy and memorable experiences. We need to be STAR-MAKERS, and feel blessed we are able to help our kids and athletes chase their dreams and passions.

  4. There must be more to the family unit than just sports: Youth athlete burn out is a major fear and factor for those “outliers” that are tagged as talented. For all the dynamics discussed above, kids are simply not set up to be the focal point of the family unit. It leads to stress and the “kid athletes” to lose their burning passion for the sport. When sport becomes the overwhelming driving force and epicenter for the family unit, there is not the ability to separate the kid from the sport. It can lead to strained relationships between kids and parents as the athlete matures, and from a parent’s perspective, can be devastating when the kid quits the sport, or due to adolescence, naturally wants to find their own way in the world and their sport. For siblings that are not athletes, it can also lead to lack of identity for them. They are simply part of “Team Johnny” and even their identity then gets tied up in that of the “golden child”. Weird dynamics all ways around.

I applaud all families and coaches that back the talented youth athlete. It comes from nothing but love and a want to see the athletes succeed. But it is also a slippery slope. When the results and skills of a youth athlete are celebrated more than the person, and when the esteem of the talented youth athlete is tied exclusively to what they do in the field of sports, then perhaps as coaches and parents we really need to look at what we are doing. The road to ruin is paved with good intentions, and regardless of whether what we all do comes from a good place, if its negatively effecting to overall and all-round growth of the athlete as a person, then it’s just is not a good thing.

Please check out this link with esteemed youth coach John O’Sullivan. He hits it out of the park:

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