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Raising Young Athletes – Tips for parents

A phrase which every coach working with young athletes will be familiar with is "Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD)". Some amazing work has been done to provide a model to help guide coaches and sports federations as to how to most effectively nurture children from the just learning to walk stages to either elite level sport or being active adults. 


These models mainly deal with physical growth stages and the physiological developments through training. This would suffice if developing athletes was a pure science or we were working with robots. However we are working with real humans, who are not only still developing physically, but also emotionally and socially.


As an accomplished coach once stated: "Winning with people is not a complete science".


Much of sport, especially competitive sport, only occupies for most, our childrens' school years. A study in America showed that the percentage of both male and female high school basketball players that grow up to be pro players is only 0.03%!  How much fewer make it in individual sports such as athletics. 


This makes it so important for parents and coaches to always take a humans first, athletes second, winning third approach.


To help guide you a little along the journey, here are a few checks for parents and coaches which I have learned from observation in the trenches:


1. A love for the game is what matures the gift

It is often easy to confuse your own desire to have your child do a certain sport with your desire as a parent to "give them opportunities". If they are not interested, then they are not interested. Even if you think they are amazingly gifted, a crucial part of the gift reaching its potential is a "love for the game".


2. Family first, sports second

Sport is temporary, family is forever. While the friendships built in sports teams do make them a kind of second family, it is so important that sport does not so consume every moment of the week that there is no time for just being with family and friends. A lot more life value and precious memories will be gained from a family ball game in the park than from yet another sports clinic.


3. Sport is a gift not an investment

Youth sport is not cheap! You have gear, coaching fees, tour fees...and the list goes on. This can leave parents feeling frustrated when things don't go as well as they thought, or their child decides they don't enjoy a certain activity anymore. The kids know when you are thinking, "but I invested so much time and money"...and this puts really unfair pressure on them. Also be careful of getting carried away with new gear and extra coaching lessons just because they won a race at school. Keep it simple! 


4. Growing humans change, a lot

Changes in physical structure as well changes in likes/dislikes are very real as children both grow physically and discover who they are and what their passions are. All these many changes (especially the super awkward puberty years!), will have an impact on their sports perfomance and choices. For this reason it is good to expose your children to a variety of skills, to develop a love for physical activity before performance and to not make as if they are a future olympic champion at the age of 7.


5. Effort first, results second. The law of continuous improvement

The great thing about placing a high prize on effort is that with increased effort, improved results will come. No athlete, no matter how talented, is going to reach the top without hard work. Period. No kid can control how well another kid or team is going to perform. You are only in control of your own improvement and effort.


7. Improvement is not linear

Anyone who has started a fitness or weight loss program knows that initially you see improvements almost every week, but as you improve, it gets tougher and takes longer to go up the next level. It is the same with youth sports, there will be times of rapid improvement and then times when things seem to plateau or even go a little up and down. Don't always only celebrate improved results, learn to also celebrate small things they did right, character, skill improvement, good tactics, effort etc. Success goes beyond the scoreboard.


8. No one is the next Usain Bolt

Only Usain Bolt could and would ever be Usain Bolt. Your child will only be the next Peter or the next Mary. It is so important for parents and coaches to value each child for who they have each uniquely been created to be and to nurture each one to be the best them.


9. Beware of Big Fish, Small Pond syndrome

It is very important to realistically evaluate your child's performance. Especially children who only compete in small private school settings.

Just because your child won a race at school does not mean that they are on their way to athletics stardom. It just means they ran the fastest out of all the kids in that race on that day.


10. Don't make excuses

If your child did not make the team or lost the game, don't make excuses for them. Sport is a wonderful learning school for 1) Accepting that at times you will not win 2)  Celebrating the success of others 3) Learning to take ownership of your mistakes.


I hope these few tips are helpful. Keep being awesome and let's raise children who are active for life and loving it.


Onwards and upwards!


Coach Kathleen

Professional running coach

Cape Town, South Africa