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A Long Term Approach to Youth Athletics

To say that the youth sport culture has changed would be the understatement of all understatements. Now, I don’t want to come across as one of those guys that uses the “back in my day” storytelling style, but let me tell you something, back in my day, things were different. Kids played pickup games with friends. We played street hockey, basketball, football, had homerun derby’s, and tons of other things I can’t even think of. There were no rules made by adults. We made the rules and did whatever we felt like doing that day. And when we were done, we probably ate some pizza, drank soda, and washed that down with a pack of skittles and then called it a day. I am 32 years old, so, in my mind “back in my day” wasn’t that long ago, or maybe it was…

The benefits of youth sports are well known. Kids learn leadership, have fun with friends, can build self-esteem, promotes physical activity, and they get to socialize with peers. These things would benefit any kid. We need to keep them participating in athletics. It is crucial. But we have entered a new era for youth athletics. Unstructured play time is not as common as it once was. Take a look at some of the parks or basketball courts that were popular for you as a kid. Are kids still playing there? Is the park even there anymore?  Now, we have clubs, travel teams, structured practice every day, and coaches/adults involved in everything. We also have kids participating in one activity 365 days out of the year with little to no variation. Because of this, it is no wonder why statistics like this exist: 70% of youth athletes discontinue playing a sport by age 13.

So what should we do as adults, coaches, and parents? It appears the recipe for long term success is as follows: Early Sport Diversification + Delayed Sport Specialization = A greater likelihood of lifelong sports involvement, a lifetime of physical fitness, and possible elite participation. The key word there is possible. If we look at the numbers, depending on the sport, only 3-11% of high school athletes play collegiate sports. 1% may actually get a scholarship and 0.3-0.5% might even reach the pros. Now, if you take a look at those numbers, you need to truly be an outlier in order to specialize. For the rest of us, the focus should be placed not on scholarship, but on varied sport participation and encouraging lifelong training habits. Once high school ends, if we are not playing a collegiate sport, we need to have training habits established that we can do at any age. So lets take a look at the best way to develop athletes starting from day one. ​ Six Stages of Long Term Athletic Development:


1. Motor Skill Introduction (0-6 years old): I am watching this stage play out right now with my daughter. From the beginning, its things like lifting their head, grabbing and holding things, then eventually crawling and so on. As they get a little bit older, the emphasis is placed on exploration, play, and family physical activity. This is a fun stage to watch and also a crucial stage in the development of a child.


2. FUNdamental Stage (6-10 years old): This is probably going to be the young athletes first introduction to team sports. No matter the sport, the focus should be on learning the fundamental skills associated with the sport and the ABCs of athleticism (Agility, Balance, Coordination, and Speed). This is the perfect time to try a variety of sports and really explore the interests of the child.


3. Training to Train (10-14 years old): During this stage, time commitment will increase. The goal is to learn how to train/practice and learn the basic skills of a specific sport. Training should consume 75% of total time, competition should be 25%. This is where I believe issues begin to arise. The focus is on games and tournaments instead of where it should be: learning skills. Practice time is more important if the goal is long term development. Coaching also begins to play a big role here. When you do compete, play on a team and on a level that allows you to get on the field and use those skills that you acquired in practice. Sitting on the bench for an "elite team" will not allow this to happen.


4. Training to Compete (13-18 years old): This period has a shift in focus. 50% of the time should be spent working on technical and tactical skills and 50% on competition. Practices should be more frequent and intense. Again, coaching is important during this period of time. Be involved in a program or organization that focuses on developing the athlete and coaching everyone to the best of their ability. During this period, if the goal is collegiate athletics, you will find out where the athlete stands.


5. Training to Win (17 years and up): The goal here is to optimize performance. This is high level athletics, starting in high school and beyond. 75% of training is in competition or competition-based training. Competition based training is important in development. Give the athletes opportunities to explore their skills during a fast paced practice period. Coaches aren’t stopping play, this period has game-like situations and done at a pace that mimics an actual game. The other 25% of the time is practicing skills and performing drills. This period is a little slower, allowing coaches time to correct and fine tune. All technical skills should be covered during this period. 


6. Retirement: This is where we live post-athletic career. This stage occurs when you no longer compete and move into a sports-related career like coaching or enjoy lifelong fitness habits. Success in retirement is built off the foundation you laid in the previous stages. Positive, healthy habits in your youth can lead to a lifetime of health and wellness. The inverse is also true. A negative experience as a youngster can effect you for the rest of your life. Health and wellness should play a role and be a priority in any child's life!


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