Building on an extensive review of sport science and medicine research, Balyi has developed a seven stage long-term athlete-development model that guides the optimal progression of a young person from an active child to an elite athlete through a system of progressively appropriate developmental stages.1 This model is being considered in a number of countries to guide the training, competition and recovery programs of aspiring young athletes.2 The model is based on a child's level of maturation, not their chronological age, and integrates other key sport science principles such as periodized training, progressive adaptation and allowances for recovery. Thus, the child progresses from enjoying physical activity (Stage 1), learns FUNdamental motor and sports skills (Stage 2), learns to train (Stage 3), trains to train (Stage 4), trains to compete (Stage 5) and moves into a compete-to-win stage (Stage 6) as an older teen or young adult followed by a transition out of sport into an active life (Stage 7). Athletes who progress through sports programs based on this model experience optimal training and competition opportunities which are reflective of their social, emotional, biological and cognitive needs.
Most sport science and medicine specialists exposed to Balyi's notions have embraced them as a rational and well-thought out approach to guiding young people's sport development. There is only one problem. As sport scientists and medical experts we have little influence on the average youth sports organization, coach, or parent. We are not very good at disseminating this type of scientifically-based information to those who can use it most; universities reward knowledge generation much more than dissemination. If we were operating within the private business sector, we would probably fire the marketing and public relations professionals responsible for getting our “products” (sport science knowledge) out to the public!
Many involved in youth sports are working from a very different world-view than that familiar to those of us in the sports medicine and science communities. With little training in our field, they are bombarded with the intoxicating images and messages of elite entertainment sport: ‘winning is what counts and to win you need to train extremely hard and do whatever it takes to get to the top'. This perspective leads directly to the all-too-common negative behaviors conveyed in the media: manipulation of birth records to facilitate eligibility; parental abuse of officials, coaches, and children; subverting academic opportunities and programs to pursue sporting goals; violating rules to illegally video record and scout opponents; and the use of performance enhancing drugs. Contemporary parents also frequently come to believe that their worth as parents is reflected in their children's athletic success-success which, in accordance with the elite entertainment sport model, is defined simply by winning, trophies, medals, national rankings or the acquisition of scholarships. This belief causes many youth sport parents and coaches to soon forget that sport is about the love of the game and the physical, mental and social benefits derived from participation. Sadly, it should come as no surprise to note that the ‘professionalized’ approach to sport has drifted from professional environments, to collegiate, high school, and ultimately to youth sports.
Because leading sport science concepts, like those represented in Balyi's model, do not make it to the ball fields, pools, gymnasia or playgrounds, coaches and parents continue to operate from a number of tragically flawed assumptions. These suppositions include an array of misguided ideas: that athletic talent can be successfully identified and cultivated at very early ages; early single sport specialization and year round training is the best way to advanced sporting success; young people are best motivated by winning and extrinsic rewards; physically talented young athletes can immediately enter elite training programs; competitive experience is far more important than good training; and that one cannot develop athletic talent in an enjoyable, fun-filled atmosphere.3,4 These myths become embedded in the minds of youth sport parents and coaches who feel that they observe that children who start earlier, train longer and specialize in a single sport experience more short-term success. The reality is usually very different: It is more common a few years later to observe the frequency of overuse injuries or waning interest in physical activity as a result of doing far too much far too soon.
I contend that the adoption of a ‘professional model’ within sport organizations is the single biggest problem we face in contemporary youth sports. It is adversely affecting the motivation of young people, exposing them to risks of injury, destroying an appreciation of sport, and often turning them away from sport and a recognition of the benefits of lifelong physically activity at the very time we need to turn them on to it. Ironically, by doing too much too soon and emphasizing competitive success at earlier and earlier ages, the athletic talent development process can be inhibited. How many potentially elite athletes never reach the level of their potential because of injury, lack of motivation, or frustration with a lack of control over their own sport lives? More importantly, how many young people are turning their backs on sport and physical activity because of negative coaching, a system that rewards only those who succeed on the field, and the need to start one's career at the age of 4?
So, what as sport science and medicine specialists are we to do? We talk about these issues in professional meetings and journals and write our position statements. Getting our hands dirty might be a good way to start-we need to get involved with local programs and disseminate our research in forms that normal people can understand and in sources they read (write columns in local papers, develop 60-second public service radio, Internet and television spots). We need to listen to those involved in youth sports (especially young people themselves), identify their needs and then respond appropriately. Moving out of our comfort zones, we also need to get politically involved, helping to shape government and National Sport Governing Organization policies and lobbying for more funding for “youth sport done right”. We have the knowledge to make a difference in the lives of millions of young people.
This change will not happen, however, as a result of sitting in ivory towers pumping out our next research article in that high impact-factor journal. Doing the research is important and necessary but far from sufficient; it does little good if we only disseminate it to our colleagues. We need to get it in the hands of those who can use it and implement change. The time has come to move beyond the rhetoric and act to counter the professionalization of youth sports. The health and potential for positive sport experiences of millions of young people depend on our actions.
1. Balyi I. Sport system building and long-term athlete development in Canada. The situation and solutions. In Coaches Report
. The Official Publication of the Canadian Professional Coaches Association. 2001;8(1): 25-28.
2. Long-term athlete development. Canadian Sport For Life. http://www.ltad.ca
. Accessed May 21, 2008.
3. Ferry T. Game on: the All-American race to make champions of our children
. New York, NY: Hyperion; 2008.
4. Gould D, Carson S. Myths surrounding the role of youth sports in developing Olympic champions. Youth Studies Australia
. 2004;23: 19-26.