By Douglas Crashley, BSc., CSCS

What I wish all young kids would do BEFORE they specialize in a sport, is to first learn to be an athlete.

Today, we are more likely to see kids specialize in one sport and then learn how to be an athlete instead of the other way around. You see, I have been a sports performance coach working with athletes, mostly hockey players, for over 20 years. So I’ve got a pretty good understanding of human movement and I have seen how bad young athletes, hockey players, in particular, are when it comes to being an athlete.

They only know how to play hockey, they don’t know how to run, how to jump, how to climb a tree and they have trouble controlling their body. 

In the race to be good at hockey, they aren’t learning the simple mechanics of being an athlete, which doesn’t translate well to hockey or any sport.  Studies show that kids do better when they are athletes first and specialize second and poor performance as well as potential injuries, are the outcomes of not being an athlete first.

What does that mean?

It means the best way we can help our young athletes is by starting at the beginning and doing things as parents to help our kids with at home. Teach them how to run properly, be active, ride a bike and jump a bike over a hill. Throw a baseball or a football. You might laugh at the simplicity of it all, but I see kids who have skated most of their lives, their hips are rotated and toes pointed out because all they’ve ever done is skate.

Once you can teach a kid at a young age these simple things and you get in the repetition, it really opens the door to so much more. Then at an older age, these types of movements translate allow the athlete to perform at a higher level in their specific sport. 

Let’s begin there, and as well, let’s take out the word ‘elite’ when it comes to youth athletes. I find the word ‘elite’ to be thrown around so much and truthfully I find it to be B.S. and more of a sales gimmick than anything.

How can you really be elite at 12 years old?

The stress and perception of getting your child to be an ‘elite’ athlete is an ugly business that I hope I never get into. The chase of elite and excellence at 12 years old is nuts because if you are considered ‘elite’ you really just won the race to puberty at this point. You got there first. 

Everyone is going to hit puberty, male and female and excellence at a younger age isn’t because you are phenomenal, you just might be bigger, faster and stronger at that age. You might be more coordinated, more mature than other athletes and that happens, but that doesn’t mean you are ‘elite’. 

My advice for parents is don’t try to force your kid in any sport, but especially in trying to make them into an elite athlete at a young age. The best thing you can do with and for your kids is to be involved. Let them see you be active daily, don’t always hire a coach to do the work. Go play catch in the park, play volleyball with them, enjoy the sport for what it is. They will get a lot more activity, enjoyment and involvement as soon as you get involved. You are what makes a difference in your child’s learning curve.

Encourage them to be athletes, to train and most of all, to fail. Training allows failure to occur. When you train in a great training environment, you are expected to fail. That is how you find the boundaries of your abilities.  By finding the boundaries of your abilities you learn how to no longer make that your boundary and you find success through it. That develops mindset, work ethic, how to handle adversity, to push through, to be mentally tough and to know that maybe you’re not good at this, but step back and take baby steps towards achieving what you want.

Do it right, or start again.

Often I see parents that don’t want their kids to fail, they want to protect them from failure and sadness but sometimes the best thing they can do is get back up again, fall, figure it out and self organize. 

They might need a hand or a little direction but if they can figure it out for themselves, it sets them up for life. 

See you in the gym,

DC