Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Next Great One...(Youth Sports)

When I was a kid I always loved to read Sports Illustrated (SI) and I can still recall many of the covers and stories that I read in the iconic magazine.  After reading about a 14-year-old hockey “phenom” late last week a memorable SI article from the late 80’s (Nov. 19, 1986 to be exact) jumped to the forefront of my mind.  I will get back to that article in a moment but first I wanted to share what hit me regarding the not so unique circumstances surrounding this young hockey player.

Sean Day is 14 years of age and plays for a local 16 and under hockey team.  The one aspect of this story that is unique is that Sean Day is 6’2 and 195 pounds!

His “advisor” a former NHL player is effusive in his praise of Day saying “the boy is Paul Coffey with an edge.”  For those who may not be aware Paul Coffey was a Stanley Cup Champion, All-Star and is in the Hall of Fame.  I am fairly certain in order to attain that level of success in a career requires a pretty sharp edge.  This edge described by Day’s advisor is one that can only be attained through experience and the hard knocks of development on the ice and in the game of life.

I would caution the family of this young athlete and those in similar situations not to put the cart in front of the horse.  It is apparent that Day has developed physically much earlier than his peers.  And while his immediate peers may never quite attain Day’s size they will close the gap and play making on the ice will not come quite so easy for him.  Right now he can simply over power the competition.

I am certainly not critical of this young man at all or his size, it can be a true blessing but one day soon he will literally be “picking on someone his own size.”  This is when the execution of the athletic development process becomes critical.  Continue to dominate the lesser developed competition or step into a more competitive environment and possibly be overwhelmed…

There is a middle ground and it requires parents getting sound advice from coaches and trusting their own instincts about what is best for their child.  The child they have raised since birth and know intimately what he or she can or can’t handle.  Coaches also must emphasize long-term development over winning now.  I am certain it’s fairly tempting to turn a player of Day’s ability loose on the competition to dominate but what does that do for his long-term skill development and his integration into a team concept.  It may be fun for a while to win a lot of games but if his teammates are doing a lot of standing and watching it’s not a good environment to develop a synchronized team.

Day is expected to apply for an exception to enter the Ontario Hockey League.  This league has young men ranging in age from 16-21.  This is advanced prep for young men looking to make a career out of hockey.  Is this the right environment for a 15 year old, even if his extremely talented?

Hopefully his advisor is leading him in the right direction.  Why does a 15-year old need an advisor anyway?  I am sure the advisor in this case has the best interest of the boy in mind but is it really necessary?  My hunch is the former NHL player in this case took his own unique path to a career in the NHL.  Is he trying to replicate his experience to the benefit of Sean Day?  This doesn’t seem like a good plan to me.  Athletic development is a personal endeavor not all paths will be or should they be expected to be the same.

Kids need guidance for sure but they also need space to grow and develop their own unique brand.  There is no one way to make the NHL in fact it may be one of the most diverse leagues in professional sports.  When talent is developed with a long-term vision and relies upon fundamental elements of progression the cream will inevitably rise to the top.

One more note from Day’s story that I fell compelled to share and for many parents of children participating in travel sports it won’t surprise you.  Sean Day figures to play about 60 to 70 games for Compuware, playing as far away as Chicago, Madison Wis., and Toronto, well he does have a pro body so why not play a pro-like schedule… [1]

The only flaw in that logic are his less developed teammates who could use a good night’s sleep and some down time to allow their bodies to catch up to their full grown teammate. It might be ok for Day but it’s less than ideal for the majority of young athletes.

Back to the old SI article

The feature article attempted to predict future basketball stars and they featured athletes from 7-12th grades.  I originally looked back on that cover several years ago to gage the predictions.  They hit on the 11th grader who was Alonzo Mourning who became a very good NBA player and the 10th grader Kenny Anderson also enjoyed a good NBA career, the 12th grader also made the NBA but did not enjoy a long career and was mostly a bench player but he did make it.  The only other hit was the 9th grader whose name was Damon Bailey who had a good career at Indiana University and got a shot but did not stick in the NBA.  The one thing I always remembered is the criticism Bailey received while in college that he never lived up to the hype.  The other thing I recall about Bailey is that he was often injured and never made it in the NBA because he wasn’t athletic enough.

Bailey was the classic case of a young athlete that specialized early and peaked in high school.  He never developed the broad athleticism required to succeed at higher levels of competition.  Building an athletic career on a narrow base is never a good idea in the long run.

Your Son is To Small for the NHL

A parent recently shared with me that the coach of her son’s hockey team told them that their son was to short to play goalie in the NHL, the boy is 12 years of age…

I wrote extensively on this topic several weeks ago but I will provide a brief recap. [2] Fortunately these parents kept this comment in its proper perspective, i.e. it was dumb and useless, but it was a blow to the child who in no way asked for this critique and should not be expected to handle it well emotionally.

If you or your child have had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a comment such as this here is my advice:

First, it’s important to understand that your young athlete is at an age where kids begin to go through rapid stages of development. Development in this sense can be physical (taller, heavier, stronger, faster, etc.), psychological (more mature), and even neurological (improved coordination, and better ability to learn and refine new skills). In general, the 9-16 year-old time window is one of turbulent changes in all of these development factors. In my experience, the athletes that excel at any given level within this frame are generally those that have developed FASTER in one or more of the above components. Bigger kids dominate physically. More mature kids play a stronger leadership role and generally understand the game better. Neurologically developed kids have better technical skills and coordination than those that they play against. If you take a cross-section of all the players on any given youth sport team, it is almost always the kids that have developed sooner in these areas that excel AT THAT TIME. Unfortunately, past success is not at all indicative of future success. Many of the best peewees are not the best midgets, and in many cases, the best midgets aren’t the best college players, and the best college players aren’t the best pros. Developing FASTER does NOT mean developing to higher peak levels. In other words, if your child is lagging slightly behind now, it’s NO indication that they won’t fly by everyone in the future. Be patient, and focus on developing positive on- and off-field training habits. These are what build champions.

Being smaller and/or slower at a given level can actually be an advantage, from a technical, tactical, and psychological standpoint. It is often the under-sized players that are forced to develop above-average skill sets in order to compete at a level with larger and/or faster players. They need better hands, better technical ability (skating, pitching, shooting), an improved spatial awareness, ability to read the play, and overall understanding of the game. Think of the best players at the highest levels of any sport including hockey and then reread these qualities. You’ll likely see a significant amount of overlap. Elite hockey today is more about skill and speed than ever. The kids that are bigger and/or faster than everyone else at young ages simply push the puck past kids and then outrace them, or bowl through them. There isn’t much skill development there. Emphasize to your child that he or she has an opportunity to develop incredible skill sets while others are relying on their physical gifts, which will eventually fail them as everyone around them, including your child, begins to catch up.

  There are size mismatches at every level. Your child will need to learn to excel with his own strengths, not be victimized by the strengths of others.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that a VERY small percentage of youth players go on to compete at professional levels. Playing team sports provides an opportunity for a lot of fun, and almost as importantly, ongoing opportunities to develop characteristics that will benefit your son later in life. There are very few handouts in life. Most things of any value need to be worked for. They often need to be continually worked for despite several setbacks and periods of hopelessness. Use your child’s lack of size as an opportunity to teach them that the way they are going to be successful is by adopting the attitude of constantly outworking everyone else. Teach them perseverance. Teach him drive. Let him develop a passion for the game, and also for goal hunting (the process of setting goals and then hunting them down with an unparalleled determination).

Elite athletic development is a long-term process. Keep this in perspective.  If your child develops quality habits now, they will serve him or her forever not only on the field of play but in the game of life as well. This is the goal. Develop a better athlete player. Develop a better person.

The Hits Keep On Coming…

Three years ago I wrote about a 13-year-old that was offered a scholarship to play football at the University of Southern California (USC).  Here is an update plus the terrific idea (sarcasm alert!) his father had to create a school just for his son.

Phil Loomis
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist




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