With the start of the spring season comes the start of the new sports season. Thousands of our local youths are getting into the full swing of baseball, softball, spring soccer and many other sports this time of year.
As a local coach, pediatric chiropractor and lifelong athlete myself, this topic holds special importance to me. Sports got me connected with my friends, raised my self-confidence, taught me safe risk-taking and helped me learn sportsmanship and responsibility.
Today, 35 million American kids ages 4 to 14 are involved in organized sports, so sports are a great way to connect with our kids and help teach them these invaluable skills. However, the problem with kids in sports these days lies in the fact that 70 percent of them will drop out by the time they are 13, missing a valuable opportunity to learn socialization, character development, exercise and fun.
So what can we do as parents, coaches and teachers to help our kids develop as athletes and young adults? Here are some tips from a great book: “The Sports Gene,” by David Epstein.
Parents: More play, less pressure
Perhaps because they think that focusing on one sport will get their kids on a college coach’s radar, many parents push for year-round specialization. Besides the risk of overuse injury, that approach also means your child is less likely to find the sport that he or she loves and is good at.
A better strategy: encouraging your kids to experiment.
“Diversification doesn’t’t just mean playing multiple sports,” Epstein says, “but it’s also allowing a playful environment where implicit learning happens.”
Epstein likes the “learn like a baby” model of sports development: A baby learns language skills by babbling and playing with no fear of failure, he says. Once the early skills are learned implicitly, that’s when you can start teaching the rules of grammar. In today’s sports culture, Epstein says, we’re teaching the grammar before our kids are implicitly learning and playing with basic athletic skills.
“What the sports science suggests we’re doing for kids in sports is that we’re doing it backward,” he says.
Epstein points to UCLA data that shows athletes on college scholarship don’t specialize in one sport until the average age of 15.4, while high school athletes on college club-level teams specialized at the age of 14.2. That data suggests that diversifying is linked to higher skill levels as the athlete ages.
“If a kid is a quick biological maturer, that’s different than them being the next LeBron James,” Epstein says. “The path that most elite athletes travel is the Roger Federer path: his parents forcing him to play basketball, badminton and soccer — not the Tiger path. That’s an exception.”
Coaches: Clap, don’t correct
Epstein supports the idea that positive feedback is linked to higher performance. He cited research by sports psychologist Christian Cook, in which subjects performed better and were less likely to repeat mistakes when they were given positive feedback (as testosterone increased).
“I don’t know if it’s counterintuitive that positive feedback works, but it’s not the intuitive way for [coaches] to act,” Epstein says, explaining that coaches naturally identify what’s wrong and instructs athletes how to improve.
“If you had to choose between needing feedback when we did something wrong or when we did something right, I’m convinced now it’s when we did something right. And that’s when people don’t give feedback,” he says. “They pay attention to what’s wrong.”
As parent or coach, what is the one trait that you can instill in your child or players that can help them get the most out of their experience? Epstein says it’s reflection.
The athletes who reflect on their performance are able to self-evaluate what they can do better. This is largely based on the work by Marije Elferink-Gemser of the Netherlands, who believes that reflection (while more natural for some kids than others) can be taught.
Encourage young athletes to ask themselves questions that will facilitate that kind of thinking: What did I do well? What didn’t I do well? Who are the people who can help me get there?
I truly believe that these small changes can help reconnect our kids to the fun and joy that can come about from playing organized sports and keep them coming back.
DR. NATE CLEM is a chiropractor specializing in pediatrics and family wellness at Discovery Wellness Center (www.discoverywellnesscenter.com). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.