Altitude or Trajectory When It Comes To Young Athletes?

ThinkingImagine there are two airplanes. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon.  One is flying at 10,000 feet, the other at 5,000. Which one do you want to ride on? ……. Too soon to know? You might want to know where they’re going. Are they climbing or descending? How fast are they going? That one measurement, the altitude in a single moment, doesn’t tell you much. You need to know where they’re headed over time. You want to know … the trajectory.

When we work with developing athletes in middle school and even high school though, we often forget that they, like those airplanes, are bodies in motion. Each one has a unique trajectory; starting in different places and maturing at different rates. Trying to determine where they’re going to land or end up at any single point along the way is crazy, like trying to pick the flight you want based only on where the planes where at 2:00 in the afternoon.
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That’s why we need to take a more personalized and long term approach to developing young athletes if we want them to enjoy the lifelong benefits of sport and develop their true potential. A recent two year study published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research looked at a group of 13-15 year old youth rugby players over two years. The researchers  found that not only do physical and performance trajectories vary between players, but those individual trajectories change over time. In other words the kids at the top of the curve now may be closer to their peak and improving at a slower rate than a player who was smaller, slower or less skilled when they both started. It’s not unusual at all for so called “late bloomers” to come on strong later and pass their faster maturing team mates.

MSGirlsSoccerThe study recommended a few things. First, take  a long term approach to developing young athletes. You simply can’t know where a kid will land at 17 when they’re 12. Second,they recommend a de-emphasis on performance in adolescence. Unless your end goal is to dominate other 13 year olds, winning is not a good indicator of who will be successful later on and emphasizing it takes the focus off of development for everyone including the current top performers. Plenty of kids show up at the next level short on skills or athletic fundamentals because the emphasis was on racking up age group tournament wins.  Finally, avoid de-selection early on. The pyramid approach that eliminates kids along the way is not productive or useful whether your main goal is long term participation or sustained excellence at higher levels. Think of it this way – if you want a high school dynasty, then having to choose which ten athletes to play from 30 excellent ones in your program is a  much better challenge to deal with than trying to hold together the 10 kids you picked out as eighth graders.

We have so many stories of late bloomers who surprised us that the term has become more the rule than the exception. Every kid blooms in their own time. Our goal is to support them in that process beginning with our middle school boys and girls all the way through. Because once you take off you never know where you might land.

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