Youth sports is unrecognizable from a generation ago. Long gone is free-range play in backyards, driveways, and sandlots, replaced by organized sports as early as age 3 and competitive, travel ball teams at 7.
Like art and music, recess and physical education have become casualties of a public educational system that places a focus on standardized testing that didn’t exist just 20 years ago. As a result, youth sports are now adult managed, highly organized, and narrowly focused on one sport from the age of 8, an age where kids in the 1980s might have first ventured beyond their neighborhoods into community recreational leagues, where they likely played three or even four sports per year.
For all of today’s focused pre-professional style training, it’s not producing more American pros. The number of American-born players in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, for instance, has declined in the last generation. Aside from sisters Serena and Venus Williams, American tennis hasn’t produced a dominant player with sustained time at the top in years.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute, athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 is down almost 8 percent over the last decade. The study suggests that less than a third of coaches are trained in injury prevention and general safety. Not even 30 percent are trained in CPR and basic first aid.
Never has the need for qualified coaches been more important. Here are four key qualifications for youth sports coaches given the modern youth sports structure.
1. An understanding of volume.
The typical youth coach played that sport as a child. Today’s rec league baseball or soccer teams pretty much resemble those of previous generations, though they start at a younger age and provide nicer uniforms.
The difference comes in year-round, travel ball competitions, where it’s common for kids to practice three or four days a week and then play in weekend tournaments — all year long. Such a packed calendar, unthinkable in the professional ranks and restricted by the NCAA at the college level, is routine in youth sports.
Not surprisingly, there’s an epidemic of repetitive use injuries. A top athlete a generation ago might have played sports year-round, but an athlete playing, say, soccer, wrestling, and lacrosse would have been using different movement patterns depending on the sport.
In the professional ranks, baseball pitchers return from injury under strict pitch counts and NBA players under limited minutes.
“But at the youth level, you’ll have a kid come off an ACL injury and be thrown into a weekend soccer tournament full speed,” says Jon Barlow, a performance specialist at EXOS. “You need someone who understands volume and workload, which is especially important in the era of the one-sport athlete.”
2. An understanding of movement skills.
Only in recent years have most colleges hired sport-specific strength coaches with movement skills backgrounds. So, it would be unrealistic for youth sports coaches to have backgrounds in performance training or athletic training.
But larger youth operations with many coaches, such as year-round swim clubs, travel soccer/baseball teams, and AAU basketball programs, should have at least one coach with such a background. If nothing else, all coaches should be CPR-certified and have first-aid training. (USA Swimming, for one, requires its coaches to be CPR-certified and undergo lifesaving training through the American Red Cross.)
Now more than ever, with athletes playing the same sport all year, it’s important that they understand movement skills to reduce the risk of injury.
“It’s surprising to see how many young athletes, even teenagers, don’t know how to get into proper base position and compete in a dangerous knee-dominant position,” Barlow says. “Obviously there are many more youth sport volunteer coaching needs than movement specialists, but it would be great to see more youth organizing bodies require it the way they do CPR or youth safety courses.”
3. A commitment to fun.
Perhaps the reason for the decline in youth sports participation is obvious. An adult run, highly structured program focused on winning and work is no fun. No wonder kids are burned out by middle school.
In fairness to parents, it’s difficult to get kids outside to play on their own since kids are overly scheduled and, of course, susceptible to the lure of smartphones and video games. But that doesn’t mean youth sports, especially at the recreational level, can’t still place an emphasis on fun.
“The first three letters of fundamentals are f-u-n,” says Jacob Rivera, a performance specialist at EXOS. “So, when you’re working with younger kids, say 7 to 9 years old, you can stress the fundamentals so long as you make it fun. Too often kids are getting thrown into a competitive, travel ball program at a young age before their bodies are ready and before they have the mindset for it.”
4. Valuing versatility.
We’ll never see another athlete like baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, drafted out of college by the NFL, NBA, and MLB, or even an athlete like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders who played in both the NFL and MLB. But these days, it’s become increasingly unusual to see an athlete excel in two sports in high school.
Youth sports coaches should recognize that gifted athletes who don’t commit to one sport year-round might help themselves by developing complementary skills — such as the basketball player who also plays lacrosse — and avoiding repetitive use injuries. Not only that, they get a mental break from each sport.
Barlow, who little more than a decade ago played four sports in high school, marvels at the sudden specialization and worries. “Kids are getting run into the ground,” he says. “If you play different sports, you’re not taxing any one system as much and can be active year-round. You should still be able to wait to specialize.”
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