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Fixing the Youth Sports Problem - Part 2

Image Source: woodleywonderworks / CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original

Read time: 12 min

In Part 1, I discussed the current problem with youth sports—less physically active kids and year-round sport specialization. The strategies in Part 1 focused on the psychology of how to keep youth athletes engaged and motivated to improve.

In today's post, I'm going to detail three coaching strategies to help you develop physical literacy. Combining these strategies with those in Part 1 will maximize the positive impact you have on your youth athletes' development.

What Comes First?

Youth coaches always have to be aware of the different developmental domains—physical, physiological, psychological, emotional, and cognitive.

They also have to realize that youth athletes are more than just the label 'athlete'. Refer to Part 1 for more on holistic development and strategies to achieve it.

Today's post focuses specifically on the 'athlete', but coaches should understand that athlete development is part of a bigger picture.

Part of that picture is viewing athlete development as a continuum. One model I find really useful is Canada's Long-term Athlete Development Model (Figure 1) [3].

Figure 1. Canada's long-term athlete development model (Canadian Sport Centres, 2011, p. 6).

The stages within the bottom three colored blocks represent the beginning of the athlete development continuum. These beginning stages contribute to the general outcome of Physical Literacy.

The general objectives of Fundamental Movement Skills and Fundamental Sport Skills guide the specific objectives of these early stages.

Dedicated training and high-stakes competition don't take place until after physical literacy is established. In fact, the first stage to even mention "competition" is the fifth stage, "Learning to Compete."

This stage roughly coincides with late high school (think varsity sports) and is generally when sport-specialization should begin. It marks the transition from being a general "athlete" to being a "football player" or "basketball player" or "volleyball player" or "lacrosse player" or whatever other sport-specific athlete.

The developmental stages coincide with grade school through to early high school, or from youth sports through to the junior varsity level. The focus during the developmental stages is to establish a general foundation of fundamental movements and skills—physical literacy.

Coaches at these levels should strive to create athletes, preparing them for sport specialization in the later, competitive stages of the continuum.

The Cart before the Horse

The unfortunate reality is that today's youth sports environment cajoles children into becoming specialized athletes too early.

The following are three common stories of what happens to youth athletes when we neglect the developmental stages (none of which leads to long-term athletic success):

1) The Over-specialist: The child who only played soccer growing up may find she is more drawn to basketball when she reaches high school; however, her unvaried experience leaves her with a limited skillset.

Unfortunately, those years of playing soccer didn't give her the hand-eye coordination needed to make the successful transition to basketball.

If she's lucky, she'll end up with a coach who helps her develop the skills she needs to get some playing time. Or she may decide to dispassionately endure her old sport, because at least she gets to play.

Otherwise, she makes an early exit from competitive sports because she didn't have the skills to pursue something she was passionate about. Who knows how far she would have made it with a more diverse skillset?

2) The Late Bloomer: Late Bloomers often get type-casted based on their stature or lack of relative ability. For example, it's not uncommon for an overweight kid to become a default lineman in peewee and middle school football.

By the time he hits his growth spurt and leans out a little during puberty, he won't have developed the running or agility skills to take advantage of his new stature as a back or receiver.

Late Bloomers often succumb to a similar fate as the Over-specialist. The limited development from years of being pigeonholed leaves Late Bloomers with few options to pursue down the road.

3) The Early Maturer: Early Maturers often end up as a flash in the pan. These individuals enjoy lots of early success due to being further along developmentally than their peers.

Unscrupulous coaches swoop in to lure these athletes and their parents onto "elite" travel teams and to glitzy showcases, promising a fast track to the pros.

However, their peers, who once lagged behind, eventually catch up. Not to mention, as they advance through the ranks, they encounter more kids that are just as talented as them, if not more so—a definite gut-shot to the ego of someone vaunted by adults for being so "special."

Usually, the Early Maturer loses motivation in the face of stiffer competition or gets burnt out from the year-round routine of competitions and showcases.

Another potential outcome for the Early Maturer, driven by overzealous adults, is to end up as "The Needless Tragedy" where the standout athlete ends up needing surgery to repair an overuse injury in middle or high school.

The moral of these stories is this: "Build athletes first, sport-specific players second."

Developing Physical Literacy

Ideally, athlete development begins during childhood, and the athlete progresses through each stage of the continuum during its corresponding age range.

However, today's kids engage in less unstructured, free play and endure poor physical education curricula. (I'll cover "play" and the rest of the sport pyramid in next week's article.)

The absence of play and P.E. means that kids fail to complete the foundational stages of the continuum. Meanwhile, their chronological age—and many of their peers—continue to advance.

Unless they end up with a coach who takes the time to focus on the necessary remedial work to make up lost ground, the physically illiterate athlete faces an uphill battle to be successful at higher levels of competition.

The following strategies will help you successfully take your athletes through the developmental stages and achieve physical literacy.

1) Always think long-term

It's important to be present in the here-and-now, but we also need a solid idea of where we're headed. In our case, our starting point is the developing athlete, and our eventual goal is to turn him or her into an elite athlete.

The objectives of the developmental stages are building fundamental movements and skills and physical literacy.

Competitive sport doesn't even appear on the LTAD model until the fifth stage, and High Performance Sport even later. (These distinctions will tie into next week's discussion on the sport pyramid.)

Unfortunately, the differences between developmental and competitive sport are often overshadowed by adults who are obsessed with winning and fail to look at the big picture.

In the grand scheme of things, what difference does a second grade soccer team going undefeated really make? And what does making a 5th Grade All-Star team actually signify?

What's left to celebrate for the youth national-champion weightlifter who ends up injured because their coach never fixed their technique or constantly made them max out?

Don't get me wrong. We should celebrate worthy accomplishments, and there are important lessons in winning and losing.

However, problems arise when adults lose sight of the big picture and over-inflate the significance of single outcomes, because doing so debases the cumulative process of athlete development.

Back in '82, Uncle Rico used to be able to throw a pig skin a quarter mile. Good coaches don't let their athletes become Uncle Rico. Image copyright: Ⓒ Fox Searchlight Pictures & Paramount Pictures.

The fact is that youth athletes are not elite athletes...yet. However, if we do our jobs properly, we help keep that possibility open.

Long-term thinking helps us make the most out of goal setting, teaching movements and skills, and implementing training plans. We have to remember that everything we do eventually leads to something else.

Short- and intermediate-goals serve as waypoints to long-term goals. Fundamental movements and skills are integrated into complex actions and patterns. Current phases or blocks of training potentiate subsequent blocks, and current training cycles potentiate subsequent cycles.

It takes time and hard work to build the level of skill, experience, and game IQ of an elite athlete. Youth athletes have a lot of future ahead of them, so help them use each day as a stepping stone to get closer to that ideal.

2) Let them make mistakes

Physical literacy isn't just about learning fundamental movements and skills. Developing athletes also need to learn how to apply those things in various contexts.

For example, a coach may use simple line drills to develop basic skills, like changing direction. Once athletes develop proficient technique, the coach may implement situational drills, like 2-on-1 scenarios, to integrate decision-making and changing direction in a dynamic situation.

Playing boundaries, player spacing, pace and rhythm, and the defender's angle of pursuit are just some factors that will dictate how the attacker decides to move. Environmental conditions, like a wet turf, may also require the athlete to adjust her speed, timing, or cutting angle to avoid losing her footing.

Teaching these sorts of things during practices is relatively easy, because practices are a controlled environment and coaches can set repeatable conditions.

However, games are chaotic, and athletes must decide what action to take in response to, or in anticipation of, constantly-changing conditions. Needless to say, developing athletes will make mistakes. But even pros don't get it right 100% of the time!

Youth sports are a low-stakes environment, meaning that the outcome of a youth league game doesn't carry the same weight as a professional match.

Accepting mistakes doesn't mean we aren't striving for mastery and perfection. It doesn't mean that athletes have free reign to disregard the rules or ignore the objectives of the game either.

There's a time and place when athletes need to follow explicit instructions on the field, but coaches should take advantage of the low-stakes nature of youth sports to let athletes explore their skills, try new things, and take risks, because potential mistakes don't have any real consequences.

Framing mistakes as an opportunity for learning and improving is part of the growth mindset discussed in Part 1. When adults fixate on winning during the developmental stages, youth athletes miss out on the valuable learning opportunities that mistakes can provide.

Athletes will benefit from exposure to as many different scenarios as possible, because what works in one situation may not work in another.

Practices and training sessions provide a structured environment where coaches can control the variation to some degree, but the chaotic nature of games means that no two games unfold the same way.

In addition, there are significant differences between sports. For example, think of the differences in advancing the ball in soccer, basketball, and rugby. Developing athletes should take advantage of the many benefits of playing different sports [1-2,4-6].

Athletes will be able to draw upon this growing catalog of experience as they progress to higher levels of competition. Letting developing athletes apply their skills also helps to inoculate them against the pressure of making decisions on the fly.

Otherwise, when athletes are inevitably forced to make a decision during the chaos of a match, they'll likely freeze or choke under pressure.

If kids don't have the chance to make and learn from their mistakes on the field—or are too scared to make them in the first place—they're more likely to make those mistakes when it really counts. If they make it that far.

3) Know your progressions

Each athlete has different incoming abilities and different rates of learning and development. Progressions help coaches deliver appropriate challenges for each athlete.

Understanding progressions inside and out will help coaches know where to start and when to advance to the next progression.

Progressions should advance in complexity with each step, with earlier variations facilitating the desired action more than subsequent progressions.

For example, the squat progression we use helps beginning athletes develop the motor control to navigate the changes in their center of gravity during a squat.

Click each variation for a video demonstration:

Plate SquatSquat w/ Punch-outGoblet SquatFront SquatBack Squat

Just as some progressions serve as pre-requisites for more advanced skills, some progressions can develop parallel skills for multiple movements.

For instance, our progression to teach the RDL also serves as part of our deadlift progression. In addition, both the RDL and deadlift reinforce our progressions for the Olympic lifts.

Progressions can also provide exercise variation or be used to emphasize or de-emphasize certain qualities during different phases of the training plan. I provide examples of these practices in this How-to RDL article and in the Position Statement series on the Olympic lifts.

Progressions aren't just for strength training. Sport coaches can use them to teach a skill or to advance the context of a skill, like the changing direction example from earlier. Coaches can even apply progressions to conditioning.

For example, a coach may use daily small-sided games during preparatory phases to emphasize aerobic development. After several weeks, the coach can then introduce situational drills that shift the focus toward anaerobic system development.

As the season approaches, the coach may have a few weekends of partial or full scrimmages to simulate match demands. The coach may even schedule one or two tune-up matches or friendlies as part of a peak and taper strategy.

In addition to conditioning, this sequence inherently progresses sport-specific skills. Athletes move from performing skills in controlled, but dynamic, scenarios toward full integration of skills in match conditions.

It should be apparent that progressions can apply to every component of training and are absolutely vital to a cohesive approach to athlete development.

Coach Mandelbrot asks, "Get it?" Image source: Wolfgang Beyer / CC BY-SA 3.0.


Youth athletes are developmental athletes. Period. Even if they have amazing amounts of talent, there are no shortcuts to the pros—no matter what type of snake oil someone's trying to sell you.

It's our job as coaches of youth athletes to help them develop a solid foundation of physical literacy that they can build upon.

Use the strategies above and in Part 1 to guide your athletes successfully through the developmental stages and advance to higher levels of competition.

With your help, we can overcome the current challenges of youth sports.

If you found this series useful, make sure to pass it along. Also, leave a comment below sharing some progressions you have had success with.


[1] Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term athlete development. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[2] Brenner, J. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245.

[3] Canadian Sport Centres (2011). Figure 1: Canada's long-term athlete development model. Developing physical literacy: A guide for parents of children ages 0 to 12, p. 6.

[4] DiFiori, J. P., Benjamin, H. J., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G. L., & Luke, A. (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 24(1), 3-20.

[5] McCarthy, P. J. & Jones, M. V. (2007). A qualitative study of sport enjoyment in the sampling years. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 400-416.

[6] Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, J. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 7-17.

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Reader Comments (2)

Progressions rule everything I do. Sidelying > Supine > Prone > Half Kneeling > Tall Kneeling > Split Stance > Standing. You can't be a coach if you can't modify an exercise.

June 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLance Goyke

You have to make mistakes if you want to get better, it's just part of the learning process! And players need to learn how to make snap decisions on their own without a coach yelling over their shoulder about what to do. As they get older and play on more competitive teams they need to know they have the skills and the know-how to handle what comes their way.

September 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJodi Murphy

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