Nuturing young talent
Posted by Dean Holden at June 18th, 2014
by Your Family, June 2014
Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and the Williams sisters have more in common than sports triumphs – they were all raised by determined parents with a strategy for making them elite athletes. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Why do most minor league stars grow up to be major league desk jockeys?
Surprisingly, despite a handful of anomalous celebrated examples, rigid grooming techniques combined with ambition on the part of parents and coaches tend to backfire – more often undermining rather than nurturing young talent.
Studies suggest most elite athletes aren’t pointed in a single direction as children, but are encouraged to be physically active and to experiment with a variety of sports until they find one at which they excel and make the independent decision to practice and pursue.
Parents typically aren’t the most objective analysts when it comes to evaluating their children’s ability and potential. The five-year-old soccer star – bigger, faster, tougher than his peers – that you judge to be a future gold-medallist may be washed-up before graduating from the minor leagues. In fact, late-blooming talent more frequently predicts adult athletic success.
“In recruiting top level Division 1 volleyball athletes, we can usually reliably discern talent by the freshman year in high school,” says Debbie Brown, currently head volleyball coach at Notre Dame. “The talent would include natural athleticism, speed, strength and power as well as temperament. We sometimes pass on great athletes because of poor attitudes and selfish behavior. The most important attribute a young elite athlete should possess is a strong work ethic, which includes the drive and desire to improve daily.”
What exactly constitutes youthful athletic talent?
“Speed and agility are two of the most critical traits for a young volleyball athlete to possess,” says Brown, former co-captain of the 1980 US Olympic team.
Additionally, endurance, strength, explosion and trainability on display through years of graduated levels of performance can indicate true athletic talent to the trained eye.
“In some cases, intuition helps. It’s harder to evaluate the athlete who grows late or matures late. Those that have speed at an early age usually keep it. Those who don’t can sometimes develop it, but not always. The athletes that we most often miss are those that develop late and don’t show signs of agility early,” says Brown.
Nurturing a Champion Player:
A recent study by the University of North Carolina examined the points of view of several Olympians, their parents and coaches to arrive at some guidelines for developing the talent of elite young athletes. Among their recommendations:
- Young athletes should have a strong support system over a long period of time where they’re encouraged, taught the fundamentals, allowed to have fun and granted the freedom to explore their sport as well as other activities.
- Parents should instill respect for hard work and discipline while advocating persistence, achievement and an optimistic outlook.
- Parents and coaches must demonstrate confidence in the young athlete without imposing burdensome expectations.
- Make the child’s happiness and healthy development uppermost, relegating winning and success to a secondary role.
- Coaches should impart a high degree of technical expertise as well as psychological skills training – meaning they should mentally prepare the child for the rigors of participation and competition.
“Talent can be worth a lot to a young athlete, even one who doesn’t aspire to play professionally,” says Brown. “Certainly at the collegiate level, talent has enabled many to receive full scholarships to college. An athlete with talent who lacks ambition and determination will probably find herself on the bench with the top teams. I’ve advised athletes to stop playing if they’re no longer getting enjoyment out of their participation.”