Are you the parent of an athlete? If you are like many parents, you work hard to push your child to success. And when children show talent, dedication, and passion for a sport early in their lives, many well-meaning guardians steer their athletes to specialize in a particular sport as early as possible (as an extreme example, look at U-9 academy teams for Europe’s top soccer clubs). But does this lead to adolescent and adult success in this sport? And, more importantly, do kids maintain their passion, and keep having fun? Recent research on the topic may surprise you.
A group of researchers in the United Kingdom reviewed the competitive backgrounds of the top English Olympians and analyzed the data. According to these scientists, the “Super-Elite” athletes (those who had won Olympic gold medals) actually tended to begin specialization in their sport later than elite-level athletes who had not qualified for the Olympics. Obviously, maintain an extremely active lifestyle was crucial, but these super-elite athletes often spent seasons in their youth away from their main sport. According to the British researchers, mixing in cross-sport training advanced their athletic abilities as well as their love for competition.
The Importance of “Play”
In the paper cited above, the authors conclude that “attaining super-elite level may be enhanced by coupling practice in the main sport with practice, competition, and non-organized play in other sports.” Sometimes, the most productive thing a child can do is just go out and play. Without a love for playing, kids won’t hold on to a passion for compeittion as they age. Instead, you may see what is commonly termed “burnout,” wherein young promising athletes lose interest in competing and turn away from athletics completely.
As parents, we should always stay focused on what is really important. Watching our children succeed on the field will always be exciting, but if they are not enjoying it, is it really worth it? If you truly value your child’s development in both sports and in life, then you should find new sports for your child to explore, and always provide ample opportunity to just go play.
What new sports can you try?
When looking at new sports for your children, safety should always be a top concern. Regardless of if you are consciously cross-training or not, healthy kids are happy kids, and much less of a headache to deal with. You should also keep an eye out to make sure the sport provides a fun environment, to nurture your child’s love of play. Finally, if you are looking specifically for a good sport for cross-training, you should keep in mind how the skills may apply to your child’s main sport.
Swimming is a good, general option for cross-training sports. While it may strike your child as “no fun” at first, many teams have a lively culture at meets, and kids end up having a good time without realizing it. The rigorous nature of training will instill values of diligence and consistent hard work in your children. Swimmers tend to have high rates of “burn-out,” so make sure you are on your toes to make sure your child is actually enjoying themselves.
Tennis is a challenging sport that can help expand the mental toughness of young athletes. In addition to developing physical stamina to compete in long matches, players must maintain a constant mental focus on the moment. Although this is an individual sport, this mental discipline translates very well into team sports, helping athletes to stay level-headed in high-pressure situations. One downside to tennis is that there is a relatively high cost to play, often requiring a membership to a country or tennis club to access courts.
Finally, Ultimate Frisbee is a fantastic sport for developing young athletes. This sport combines elements of football, soccer, and freeze tag to produce a highly unique but effective opportunity to learn new skills and compete in a new environment. A non-contact sport, ultimate is quite safe compared to other youth team sports. In ultimate, teams of 7 work together to advance the disc down the field. When a player catches the disc, they must immediately stop moving and throw the disc within 10 seconds. The goal is to catch the disc in the endzone, which scores a point. The fast-paced nature of the game creates a fun, engaging method for training cardio, and the constant changing angles of passes challenges an athletes ability to recognize and attack open spaces, a skill relevant to any team sport.
Ultimate is also unique in that it is entirely self-officiated. A cynical mind may see this as an implicit allowance of cheating, but in practice, ultimate’s reliance on “Spirit of the Game” for resolving disputes among players actually breeds more honest and respectful athletes. You can read more about the conflict resolution skills developed by self-offication in our blog post here, but just remember that these skills apply far beyond the lines of the field. Social skills developed through ultimate help create better functioning adults.
Where Can I Play Ultimate?
Across the country, local organizations provide playing opportunities for youth in ultimate. In our own Grand Rapids/West Michigan area, Zig Zag Ultimate hosts leagues throughout the year for (nearly) all ages. 4th-8th grade leagues, high school leagues, adult leagues, camps, tournaments and more. And none of them have a single ref.
If you are not from the Grand Rapids area, do not fret. Check here to find the nearest local league to you.