Jun 27

Young Athletes Under Pressure

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I am addressing Sport Burnout and Dropout in this Newsletter because the rates are increasing year to year. Many times, programs attempt to imitate Professional Teams or the training methods of successful Olympic athletes without reflection on- or consideration of the age group involved, the physical capacity, technical, and mental capabilities of those children and youth.

Young athletes are NOT ‘miniature adults’, and the coaching and program philosophy needs to reflect the nature and characteristics of the specific age group. If the ‘winning at all cost’ approach of the Professional model is applied to children and youth programs consequences can be severe. This was addressed as early as 1982 by Cantelon (1982), …if treated as “miniature adults” – not children, they train 30 hours per week and more, become “child athletic workers”, and become victims of “lost childhood”, and experience “lost adolescence” syndrome (Donnelly and Sargent, 1996). AND we still have not gotten it! A father of a young male gymnast I know reflected on the training hours (27 hours per week); the child athlete is 11 years old! Where does social life and school studies fit in?


Little boys playing soccer


Observe the Sporting Group Triangle below, which shows the differences between the Professional and Developmental model in Sports programs.


Chart showing different sport models


What changes are needed and how do we do it? – How to incorporate the developmental model in a sports program?

According to Laura Purcell, “Sport Readiness in Children and Youth”, deals with the following:


…Participation in organized sports may be an enjoyable way for children to increase physical activity. However, sporting activities have to be developmentally appropriate. Enrolling children in sports that are beyond their developmental ability can lead to frustration and early dropout. Thirty-five percent of children, who participate in organized sports, drop out every year. By age 5, 75% of youth no longer play organized sports (the data reflects 2005 findings. The present dropout rate is now estimated between 72-73 percent, and continues until age 17. Girls tend to drop out sooner than the boys, Schloder, 2016).

Physicians should be knowledgeable about developmental level when assessing the child’s ‘sport readiness.’ This means that the motor development matches the requirements of the sport. The acquisition of fundamental motor skills such as throwing, running and jumping is an innate process, independent of sex or stage of physical maturity. Each fundamental skill is composed of a series of stages of development that all children go through at different rates.   By preschool age, most children have acquired some of these skills but it is not until they reach the age of six years that sufficient combinations of these fundamental skills are attained to allow them to begin participating in organized sports.

Predicting ‘sport readiness’ involves the evaluation of an individual child’s cognitive, social and motor development to determine his/her ability to meet the demands of the sport. Sporting activities should be tailored to the developmental level of the child through simple modifications, such as smaller equipment, frequent changing of positions, shorter games and practices, and by focusing on Fun. The selection of appropriate sporting activities children is guided by understanding developmental skills and limitations of specific age groups (Paediatric Child Health. 2005 Jul-Aug; 10(6): 343–344. PMCID: PMC2722975)…


Coach Monika’s Response:

The Canadian National Coaching Certification Program emphasizes that program design is based on Developmental rather than Chronological Age. Figure 1 illustrates the differences between boys and girls in the various stages. This should be of consideration when establishing the personal coaching as well as the club/organization philosophy. This should explain the reason two 12 year old boys, one 5’4” – the other 4’ 8” may not have the same winning chances!


Chart that shows age development

Figure 1: Reference: Schloder, M. E. (2016). Lecture Notes. NCCP Introduction to Coaching


Undue or increased pressures from coaches and parents can be very detrimental to young children, leading to stress, burnout, and frequently to sport dropout. If swimmers (athletes in other sports) have not been trained in fundamental movement and gross motor skills in their programs, they are not able to transfer to another sport… subsequently, they become more sedentary and inactive, and eventually overweight as we now experience at the crisis stage in North America!


Youth swimmer relaxing on swim block


Coaches and parents have to become more aware, and be ready to recognize symptoms of potential stress and burnout.


Bullet points describing burnout


The so-called ‘Münchhausen’ syndrome is unique because it is a psychiatric disorder wherein the child affected by illness or psychological trauma draws attention, sympathy, or reassurance to him/her self. It is also sometimes known as hospital addiction syndrome, thick chart syndrome, or hospital hopper syndrome. Swimmers/athletes may feign, headaches, sick stomach or other illness to avoid training.

A Michigan, USA 2000 study examined 20,000 children and youth athletes, and reasons for participating in sport, and the 10 top reasons for dropout.

Let’s look at the following charts as children and youth indicate: Ten most important reasons I play my sport; most important reasons I stopped playing a sport; and I get re-involved in a sport I dropped, IF…


List of the reasons kids play aports List of reasons kids stop playing sports List of reasons kids get reinvolved in sports


There are several underlying assumptions in sport participation, according to Coakley and Donnelly, 2004:

  1. Children play sports to entertain adults
  2. Games and sports for children “must” be organized and controlled by adults – if they are to be of “real” value
  3. The “real” value in sports lies in learning to be winners and losers
  4. Sports are vehicles to make sure children (yours) end up in the “right” group

The social development of children begins at the age of 8-years. Cognitive and social abilities to understand complex social relationships in competitive sports, however, are not fully developed until the age of 12-years. German educator Friedrich Wilhelm Fröbel (1782-1852) invented the concept of the ‘Kindergarten’, proposing that ‘all children have unique needs and capabilities.’ Stating that their development resembles a ‘nourishing garden whereby they blossom or die – if not properly tended.’

We can apply this to sports programs as many children enter at the age of 6-years. However, Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994), the German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst is most famous for coining the phrase identity crisis. According to his firm beliefs, children 6-12 years should engage in a “smorgasbord of activities” rather than focus on one single activity too early, and pursuing the same all year long.


List of the positive effects of a good self image


Children also use the so-called ‘looking glass’ theory for Self-reflection:

  • Imagine “how they appear to others”…
  • Imagine “how others are evaluating them”…
  • Then form impressions of “who they are”…


The reflection on themselves can become the basis of their decision to remain in sport or dropout. As stated earlier, female athletes are affected more compared to males. Boys tend to remain in programs even when frustrated or no longer happy or motivated because of fear being labeled as ‘losers’ by teammates. However, this can create in the end problems for coaches since these boys are often distracting others and may cause discipline issues. Subsequently, coaches and parents need to communicate and share observations.

It is always stated that children and youth need to possess a high sense of self-esteem to become successful in their swimming/athletic experience. We have to understand this is not an automatic event but is a process in a ‘chain’ with several stages:

  1. Learning the skill{s}
  2. Possessing the skill{s} and being able to perform them any time under any circumstances develops ‘competence’ – Yes, I can do it’
  3. Being competent develops self- confidence
  4. Possessing self-confidence leads to self-esteem
  5. Possessing self-esteem leads to self-actualization


Diagram showing a balanced fitness program


There are now programs whereby parents insist, “that it be about FUN” in order to avoid damaging the child’s self-esteem (‘helicopter’ parents). In these programs, EVERYONE gets rewarded! Really, is this a life lesson? Do we still argue that sports builds leadership and character? These have to be developed just like physical and technical skills! Refer to the previous explanation on developing self-esteem because it does not occur by osmosis or just by joining a sports team!

The educational process and sport leadership demand full commitment, patience, tolerance, and is “relentless work” by coaches and parents alike. It is crucial that sports programs have a balance between FUN – Skills –Goals (achievable). It is NOT all about FUN alone! The previous charts show, lack of improving or not learning new skills are cited reasons for dropout!

However, there have to be adjustments to the way coaches design practice sessions or the way competitions or games are organized:

  1. Limited number of days per week
  2. Duration of practice/training sessions
  3. Field or Rink adjustments: play the width instead of full length
  4. Game adjustment: 30 versus 90 minutes; shorten periods of play in other team sports
  5. Pool length adjustment: 12.5 yards/meters for younger groups; 25 meters for 10 year olds instead of 50, 100, 200, meters… the old ‘training yardage’ approach versus technique emphasis
  6. Swim meet adjustments: do 6-10 year old swimmers and parents really need a 3-day weekend meet with lapses between events to ‘hang around’ for the next event? Wonder … why we lose swimmers? Can we adjust the format? Break up into age groups 6-8 years; 10-12 year; etc? Are Federations and organizations sooo bureaucratic and not interested in the welfare of younger competitors?
  1. Put emphasis on skill training and perfecting technique instead of immediately playing competitive games or enter competition
  2. Divide games into parts: a) introducing the new skill’; playing with set limitations (no defense; use cones instead); playing without limitations (have defense); reviewing the skill; reflecting on the new skill and its relationship to previous skill[s] taught to establish the connection

In order to be effective and exciting youth leaders (coaches and parents), we have to act as ultimate role models and deal in a responsible manner with issues or problems unique to age group and developing elite athletes in the Long-term Athlete Development approach (LTAD). Rewards are not always in the present. They more often happen in the future when athletes actually succeed at higher levels of sport or acknowledge the influences and support they received in sports in other areas of life.

We have to remind ourselves of the Turkish proverb that “there is an up-hill for every downhill and a downhill for every uphill” and that “stairs are climbed step by step.” Therefore, it is recommended that clubs host a series of educational seminars to educate parents or review expectations in regard to the training and development of young elite athletes.

















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