Steering A Better Course For Young Athletes

images-4I was having dinner with an old college football friend a few weeks ago. One of his daughters played and is now coaching at the Division 1 level in college. A second daughter is in the middle of the process of making choices about where to continue in her sport after high school. She’s just a sophomore. It’s an intense experience. He shared that when his first one went through it he tried to resist some of the pressure in the process and keep it sane and healthy. In the time between them things have changed, the process is even more intense and he feels more like he’s being pulled along in the wake of some enormous ship doing his best to keep up. The question keeps coming up, who’s got the kid’s best interest at heart?

I came  across an interview with sports performance coach Kristen Dieffenbach in the Frazier Cycling Newsletter last week. It was an insightful and helpful look at the process of athletic development and working with teenage athletes. Dieffenbach who is also a professor at West Virginia University makes  a number of strong points. And, while the interview was about development in the world of junior cycling her conclusions apply to any sport. Here are a few  things that stood out.

1. Our current models of development for junior athletes ( 15 – 20 years old ) too often functions on what she calls, “a faulty adult model of sport that is about dollars/achievement and not about true development, improvement and enjoyment.”

2. As she points out about her own sport of cycling, ” the irony of this is that true talent development actually will foster a system that will also allow for more young riders to do extremely well in racing.” It’s true in any sport whether it’s basketball, soccer or hockey. The guys at Breakaway AAA Hockey in Minnesota are proving this on a regular basis

3. Real development focuses on fostering the total individual psychological, physical and social growth of young men and women in a way that helps them become the best they can be both now and in the future, in whatever they choose to pursue. It’s about the whole person, not just their role as a competitor or athlete.

4.The emphasis in many programs is on immediate outcomes and elite teenage athletes ( which is a bit of an oxymoron as Dieffenbach points out). We look for the next champion or D1 player rather than trying to develop potential.  As she says, ” Trying to find the random talented needle in the junior athlete haystack is a poor and ineffective use of resources ( not to mention a poor indication of adult potential in many cases.)”

Dieffenbach offers some ideas that might help those of us who are coaching or in leadership think differently and change the model.

1. If you are going to coach teenagers ” know that you ARE taking the responsibility to be part of a young person’s holistic development whether you like it or not.”

2. Take the responsibility seriously and learn about the ways a coach can help ( or hurt ) the growth and development of a young person, not only into a good athlete but more into a quality person.

3. As a coach or director skip the self promotion; the “come race, or play or train with us” as the first area of interest. Put the young person first. Ask yourself, ” Are you only interested in those who show “podium” or “elite” potential? Is that your only view of development?”

IMG_3016I found the interview helpful and I encourage you to read it here. It’s short and well worth a few minutes of your time. An athletes’ development is an unfolding process circling around regularly to the fundamentals and basics. A coach’s development isn’t any different. It’s good to reminded of what’s important and challenged to look at how we’re applying it. Just like my friend it’s easy to get pulled along by the current. Dieffenbach’s thoughts might help us get our paddle in the water and steer a different course.

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