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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

What kids need...or what parents want?

Earlier this week I crossed paths with a friend as he was doing some work. He had a bunch of work papers scattered around, but amongst them I noticed what looked to be a stack of football plays. Here's a glimpse of the conversation...

Me: Do you coach football?

Him: Yes

Me: Nice. At one of the high schools?

Him: No. My son's youth team. I'm the defensive line coach.

Me: How old is your son?

Him: Seven. The team is aged seven to nine.

(My unspoken thoughts...A freakin’ defensive line coach for a team of seven year olds!...if he's the D-line coach, then he answers to a defensive coordinator, who answers to the head coach...Third layer of the organizational chart for a team of seven year olds!)

Him: You can have up to ten coaches on staff. (TEN?!)  The coach is also the offensive coordinator, but we have a special teams coordinator and other position coaches. We start camp in a few weeks and I'm thinking of installing a new package for our front seven…

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We then spent the next several minutes reviewing his charts and discussing the merits of his current 4-3 defensive versus other options, such as a modified 5-2 with a hybrid lineman/linebacker designed to confuse the offense.  (Hmmmm....Do you assign an offensive lineman to block him or a running back?…Critical information in the life of a seven year old!)

He then told me about their offseason conditioning program, which included a six week “Speed Camp” during which his son lowered his 40-time from 7.4 seconds to 6.3 seconds (Next stop...NFL Combine!).  We also discussed the importance of being ready for trickery as a defensive coach, particularly with the wildly popular offensive gadget plays like the Wrong-Ball trick. 

Although he was a defensive coach, he did mention that the offensive packages dramatically increase in complexity in the older age groups.  In fact, their club’s 13-15 year old team runs a version of the offense used by the high school in the district.  By the time they get to high school, they are supposedly well versed in the high school’s offense.  Does that mean their athletic fundamentals are so advanced at age 13 that they can spend years of their adolescence learning plays for a coach they don’t even play for yet? 

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The idea that parents have led to the destruction of youth sports is hardly a novel observation.  However, when most people think about the ruination of youth sports, they think of the egregious acts that sometimes make the news.  Less obvious is the waste of athletic potential when kids spend formative athletic years chasing trophies that matter more to adults than to the kids themselves.  Kids that age definitely need to learn the basic concepts of plays and rules, but the formal structure must not subsume a focus on the basics, especially in this era in which the modern American lifestyle leaves kids physically illiterate. 

With practice time (and attention spans) limited, there is an entire panoply of athletic skills that deserve greater attention than learning an entire playbook.  In fact, there’s a lot to be said for the old strategy of “drawing it up in the dirt” to foster the creative mindset that is central to neurological development at the younger ages.  Running, jumping, dodging, catching, throwing, falling, rolling…these are only a small sampling of the skills a required for the minimum level of physical literacy at the age of seven.  Learning how to defend gadget plays only detracts time that can be spent on athletic development. 

You could make the argument that football could be treated as an Early Specialization sport for those whose formal athletic careers will end in high school, but that argument falls flat on its face when you ask “How can you tell at age seven who can become a great athlete?”  At age seven, the sky is the limit for every kid.  Develop mastery of movement fundamentals based on age appropriate learning and you never know where a kid’s improvement trajectory will end.  Unfortunately, parents’ need to quantify progress has tarnished the process.  The only purpose of timing a 40 for a seven year old is to make parents feel like they are getting their money’s worth for “Speed Camp.”

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Optimal youth development must focus upon kids’ needs rather than parent’s wants.  Chasing youth league victories and 40 yard dash times to the exclusion of physical literacy and athletic fundamentals shows a total disregard for what kids need.  Youth sports offer discrete windows of opportunity during which certain physical traits can be cultivated to a far greater extent than any other time in life.  When parents put their wants ahead of the kids needs, everyone loses valuable opportunities that kids will never get back.   

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