I have been working with a young athlete the past two years whom has really developed himself into an excellent soccer goalkeeper.
He was recently invited to spend a week with the US National Team in Bradenton, Florida. You would expect that this athlete has been specializing in soccer most of his life (16 years) and more specifically has been groomed to be a goalkeeper.
That is not the case. He only recently (within the last two years) converted to goalie after have been a field player throughout most of his soccer experience.
The evaluation from the folks with the National Team was that he just needed more “reps.” This makes sense considering his relative lack of experience at the position. I think it’s very important to note that he wasn’t told that he needed to get more athletic (stronger, faster, more agile/powerful).
This young athletes’ athletic development was as close to ideal as can be expected in the modern youth sport culture in America. He played multiple sports growing up and when he decided to stick with one sport (in mid teens) he learned how to play the entire game. Now he takes that diverse athleticism and knowledge of the overall game of soccer and applies it to his development as a goalkeeper.
To often these days not only do kids specialize way too early they also specialize within the sport and this is highly restrictive to optimal athletic development. Think of specialization as Saran Wrap on your potential and intra-sport specialization as a manhole cover!
This young athlete just needs more reps this will require great attention to detail and a commitment to put in the essential work. At 16 years of age with highly supportive parents this is well within his capabilities. However if he were told he wasn’t athletic enough that would have been a HUGE issue. At 16 in most cases that critical window of general athletic development is nearly closed and further improvements would be very slow to occur and would likely not evolve to the level required for advanced sport competition.
At the age of 16 he is at the prime developmental age to turn his training focus toward intra-sport specialization because… The foundation has been set! His overall athletic ability is firmly entrenched. Because of this foundation he has given himself the opportunity to maximize his sport specific skills.
If the movement foundation is built upon sport specific skills (often due to early sport specialization) it intentionally restricts athletic diversity, adaptability and movement exploration, and therefore, limits the ability to develop highly technical skills and athletic instincts (unrehearsed or spontaneous movement, those plays that make your jaw drop and force broadcasters to say “you just can’t teach that!”).
Physical Therapist and Athletic Development coach Bill Hartman summarizes this process expertly:
These limitations in athletic learning result in novel experiences on the field of play being perceived as threats and the nervous system will limit human system variability to perceived demands of the sporting activity as a means of protection.
Limitations in human system variability (including movement) limit ultimate sports performance.
Early specialization is in direct conflict with the optimal long-term development of young athletes.
In other words limited athletic/movement experience (sport specialization) is like riding the brakes. It will dumb down a process that should be highly refined and instinctive and makes it robotic and slow.
Another key element that must be acknowledged in the athletic development process is the quality of coaching.
In America our most skilled and experienced coaches apply their trade to the most elite of athletes at the Division 1 Collegiate, Professional and Olympic levels.
Meanwhile, volunteers who also have to manage the demands of a full-time job often coach young athletes. This is not a recipe for developing expert coaching skills. Skilled coaches are necessary for helping athletes develop highly technical sports specific skills.
I will use the example of the young goalkeeper. He has developed to the point where now he needs very technical coaching to take his skill to the next level. He simply can’t get the coaching he needs here at home. He must travel to Chicago to work with an elite goalkeeper coach and at best this happens one maybe two times per month. This is likely not enough to get the “reps” required to meet his goal.
So the family has to explore life-changing options such as moving to an area that has an elite athlete development infrastructure in place.
Am I saying that if you really want to become an elite athlete your family has to leave the great state of Michigan?
No! I am saying however that in Michigan we do not have an established elite athletic development infrastructure in place, yet…
Some folks are working on it but it will take some time. As always follow the money trail. Elite coaches deserve and should expect to earn elite salaries. Only D1 Sports and the Professional Leagues have the backing to support those types of salaries.
In time hopefully we evolve to the point where as a society we deeply value the role teachers and coaches play in the lives of our kids and compensate them accordingly. Truly they are responsible for the long-term health and prosperity of our nation.
What to do in the interim?
The best strategy is to expose kids to a variety of activities and sports from a young age. We need to encourage multi-sport participation through the 10th grade. In the late high school year’s specialization can take place though it is not essential and it must have guidelines such as off-field training to counteract the sport specific demands while also encouraging diversity/playing multiple positions within their sport of choice. Additionally accountability, commitment and being a good teammate are best established at this point and we should be well equipped to serve as role models in this area of life.
If we don’t have elite coaches at the youth level we need to let kids play and discover what they are good at. We should give them general guidelines and teach them the basics and fundamentals of sport. We need to put our bias aside and realize there is no such thing as perfect form/technique and even if there is we probably aren’t skilled enough to know neither what it is nor how to teach it.
The young goalkeeper has not played the position long enough to establish poor habits/mechanics that need to be corrected. He is like a clean slate. As a result when he gets the elite coaching he learns better because he doesn’t have any barriers to breakdown before he can move forward.
I have spent a great deal of time over my 13 years as an athletic development coach interviewing elite coaches and time and again they tell me that they want athletes! “If you give us a great overall athlete we can teach them the sports specific skills they need to excel.”
Swinging a bat, throwing a football or blocking a soccer ball is an act of athleticism. We need to give our kids the opportunity to develop a huge general base of athleticism so that when it is time to specialize they have the tools necessary to receive the elite coaching and transfer it to the field of play.
If you coach young athletes or are the parent of a young athlete now is the time to invest in athletic/movement diversity. It will keep their bodies fresh and shield them against injury while also giving them the best chance at excelling on the field of play and in the game of life.
Author John Maxwell’s Law of Diminishing Intent says, “The longer you wait to do something you should do now, the greater the odds that you will actually never do it.”