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Trend Toward Youth Professionalization

Listen to the Science

Scientific research concludes that it takes 8-12 years (10,000 hour principle) of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels under proper guidance and training protocols. Ironically, there is no such thing as an elite 10 year old athlete. Pushing a youth athlete into an "elite" program and branding him/her as such does not make it so and there are certainly no shortcuts to athletic success. It takes time to achieve elite status; in the proper environment; under favorable conditions; with consistent exposure to calibrated methodologies. Not only does it take over a decade to produce a well-rounded competent "elite" athlete, it takes just as long to produce quality youth coaches who understand how to develop proper skills in children. Unfortunately, the current sports culture and conventional wisdom continues to mislead parents (“everyone is an expert,” “immediate gratification,” and “entitlement”) who remain unresponsive and intolerant of the emerging science and realities. Too often, parents refuse to accept the importance of proper long-term training emphases that improve athleticism through movement skills and functional solutions.  Instead, they obsess in the mistaken belief that high-profile tournament events is the key to effective player development.

Obstacles to Participation

Equally challenging and problematic, the artificially-inflated costs associated with creating, building, and sustaining “elite” programs and services are considerable and deprive a large proportion of the sports population of affordable quality programs over time. Participation costs (i.e. steep program membership fees, outrageous tournament fees, considerable travel costs, excessive profit margins, etc.) have become as much a barrier to long-term involvement as the favoritism for early-developing athletes over late-stage performers has become. Excessive, unnecessary costs, in effect, artificially prune athletes with long-term potential even as elite programs are exposed as poor determinants of athletic success. Without question, family investments must be re-directed to alternative long-term youth development programs which encourage engagement, learning, teaching and fun, which are proving to minimize and mitigate many of the deficiencies of the pro/elite model.  

The New Alternative

The architects of alternative systems of player development based on the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model are re-imagining, re-designing and re-engineering the structure, approach, management, and content of curricula, programs and activities of youth athlete development. This genre of programs embrace a long-term view and value high-touch environments that prioritize speed in play, functional movement solution and decision-making, and unimpeded risk-taking where fun rather than criticism is paramount. The intent is to reduce if not eliminate disproportionate and premature disengagement so that precision in identifying true athletic potential is increased. 

There is a “laundry list” of obstacles inherent in the Elite/Pro Model that individually or in combination conspire to screen out and limit participation which, by definition, renders the system and its features flawed, futile, and spurious. The following table offers a general comparison of the Elite/Pro Model to an LTAD-based approach:

Elite/Pro Model LTAD-Based Model
Youth athletes are essentially mini-versions of adults Youth athletes have fundamentally different emotional, psychological, and physical needs and capabilities from adults
Can be trained as adult professionals Development occurs in stages influenced by a variety of factors
Advantage to start pro training as early as possible Training must match stage/age
Always find ways to accelerate technical sport training “Acceleration” has many negative effects
Teach strategy and tactics as early as possible Physical literacy is vital at earliest stages/age
Play the game in the same environment (features, dimensions, etc) as soon as possible Small-sided games are superior game configurations
Participate in as many competitive events as possible Practice more valuable and effective than competition
Emphasize winning as a paramount objective Primary objective is long-term engagement
Demand specialization as a tool of acceleration Multi-sport sampling is encouraged and favored
Starting early with pro training improves college recruitment odds Whole-person development increases likelihood of recruitment

Increasingly, sport coaches and administrators are recognizing the need for a long-term strategy to develop athletes. While volumes of information have been written about the growth and maturation of developing athletes - especially youth athletes - the importance of the message has gotten lost in translation somewhere along the way.

The Need To Do a Better Job

It is clear that we need to do a better job of educating and disseminating the relevant and timely scientific-based research and information to parents and practitioners/coaches. We must use our decision-making skills to not only make better choices, but also deal with inevitable uncertainties. The most common thing typically holding people back from the right answer is the reluctance to discard obsolete beliefs. Instead, we must open up to new information, ideas, concepts and scientific discoveries that improve the probabilities of desired outcomes.

Issues Facing Youth Today

Many issues face our young athletes in today’s society. While sport participation is indeed a countermeasure and corrective to the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, emphasizing the wrong type or style of participation can have a surprisingly deleterious effect. Research has proven that properly designed processes with targeted emphases on athleticism - in the right manner and appropriate stages of development - are critical to ensuring optimal growth and engagement. 

Improving Coaching Capabilities and Qualifications

Unfortunately, the conduct and qualifications of those coaching youth athletes may be insufficient. Too often, a coaches inchoate knowledge leads to inadequately taught movement and technical skills, and poorly-designed and controlled training experiences. As a result, the premature "retirement" of youth athletes is often the unintended outcome, short-circuiting a lifetime of potential athletic engagement and enjoyment.  With the sport dropout rate among youth athletes reaching epidemic proportions, it is no wonder that problems associated with sedentary lifestyles and related health problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases are on the ascendency. 

Building Better Models

We have reached the inflection point where obsolete models of youth athlete development should be replaced with programs, services, and activities that can be tailored and customized according to the unique needs and requirements of youth athletes. We can no longer treat our youth as professionals, placing them unnecessarily under commensurate physical loads, psychological pressures and emotional demands that frequently result in the deterioration of a child’s physical attributes, mental well-being, and emotional enjoyment and satisfaction. The theory of the "Elite/Pro Model" has been tested and it does not appear to be effective. The science indicates there is a better way. It is called Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) and the Florida Youth Lacrosse (FLYLax) Development Program is the answer.