“If you aim for high quality development, the full self-realization of every young person in this system as they engage deeply in whatever interests them and are good at and bring it to the world so that make the world a better place together – then we really need to help educators, parents and all of society understand what learning is and what success really entails.
— Mary Helen Immordino Yangprofessor of education, psychology, human development and neuroscience at the University of Southern California
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LEARNING AND SUCCESS … two things that our youth sport systems claim to develop in our children. It’s shit.
Yes, that’s what I said. And a lot of people won’t like that. I am sure, however, that after years of witnessing pain disguised as “development” in the structure of youth sports and learning the science behind periodization, specialization, long-term development and injury prevention, I’m not the first to tell you our youth sport system is broken. Badly broken.
I have felt passionately saying this out loud for years.
Now let me say and say loud and clear: I totally believe in the power of sport. The lessons that sport teaches, its ability to build bridges and unite people is unparalleled. Heck, I travel the world as a sports diplomat preaching these messages and delivering these exact lessons to less developed countries. I even wrote a book about it.
It has become very clear to me now, however, that sport is not always good. Nothing is. After hundreds of side conversations with frustrated parents, tearful young athletes, clubs with win-at-all-costs attitudes and screaming coaches on the sidelines directing every player’s every move, the time has come to speak. I recently completed the USSF B Coach License Course, as well as over 100 interviews before writing my book,”Raising Tomorrow’s Champions: What the Women’s National Team Teaches Us About Courage, Authenticity and Victory.” The stories of the greatest female soccer players of all time, whose stories are reflected in the pages, have supported the emerging body of science that reaches a broad consensus: we are doing things wrong.
Honestly, I didn’t need to hear that. I just knew. I was a college athlete on a full scholarship, a professional soccer player for over 16 years, and a member of the United States Women’s National Team. I have been a mental performance coach and have become an expert in the mental, emotional and social development of young athletes through decades of working with children. Everywhere I turn I see a systemic failure.
At the end of the day, it is our young people who suffer the most from this situation. Anxiety, depression, burnout, frailty, total cessation of sport…you name it…all happening at an alarming rate. You don’t need me to tell you that these are real and serious problems in our world today. So, I am sharing this knowledge with the aim of disrupting the crazy train of youth athletics. Maybe I can be a tiny part of the force that stops him on the rails before he crashes and burns.
Now it’s time to fix what’s broken. It starts with understanding periodization — systematic planning of sports or physical training. The objective is to achieve the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It is a progressive cycle of various aspects of a training program over a specific time period. It also adheres to age group developmental stages, so your child experiences what is developmentally appropriate for their age and level.
Periodization, among other things, aims to reduce injuries based on understanding the appropriate recovery time after a game and the physical demands placed on the body.
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First, let’s look at our current system:
1. Specialize from an early age “In America, we’re obsessed with the child prodigy. We want our child to be next Tiger Woods Where Serena Williams. We encourage our children to choose a sport and practice it relentlessly from the age of 6. We believe that the more they can train, the faster they reach the 10,000 hours needed to become excellent at something (which was debunked by the way) and the more likely they are to get a college scholarship or return it professional. All of this is false.
2. Practice a sport all year round “It’s a branch of specialization that we expect from our future prodigies. Forget the seasons. We want our child to play the same sport 365 days a year – no off-season, no sports sampling, just a continuous marathon. All of this is false. Periodization also tells us that this is false. Bodies need a break from the constant pounding and straining of the same muscle groups.
When author Joanna Lohman ended her 16-year professional career, she became the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired.
3. Play as many competitive games as possible — We want game after game, tournaments with multiple games in one day, showcases and identification camps. We want more opportunities for kids to compete and judge their talent against an opposition. Heck, we want to be able to rank teams nationally from the age of 7 and how can we do that if we don’t play a lot of games across the country? We want our little ones who play for the national championship to earn trophies, medals and recognition so it’s all posted on social media for others to see and swoon over. What better way to test their resilience and competitive desires than putting them in pressure-filled situations from the womb! All of this is false.
4. Organize every workout — We want cones, ladders, goals with nets, and adult supervision to make sure kids are learning exactly the skills we want them to learn. We plan training six nights a week with a weekend game – regardless of anything these kids might have to do for school, friends or family. We show them exactly how to behave in each scenario. If the ball goes here, you run there. If your defender runs right, you run left. If the opponent retreats, you push forward. We manipulate sport to become a science. We build robots that act on command. All of this is false.
5. Analyze your child’s performance on the way home — We want to capitalize on that time with our child by reminding them of everything they did wrong in the game or asking them what happened during a certain game. We want them to reflect and unpack the game they just played so they will be better for the next one. We want to criticize the referees and guess the coaches. All of this is false.
6. Earn NOW — From the age of 6, we want to judge players, coaches and sports clubs on their win/loss record. We emphasize victory over everything. Our most common question after our child’s game, “Did you win?” We reinforce subtly and not so subtly that winning is the sole purpose of playing sports. Slowly, but surely, our children are tying their identity around an outcome and they are only playing to win. We only play kids who are bigger, faster and stronger with the aim of winning every match and getting a higher ranking. It’s totally false.
seven. My child is the exception – Your child has been one of the best players since the age of 6. He plays on the best team, starts every game and plays all the time. Your child is the one others look up to and depend on to win games. You are special and therefore science does not apply in this case. You need to double down on practices, games and camps because they are the best and that’s what the best do. We live in fear that failure to follow this manic training regimen will result in their peers overtaking them at all times. All of this is false.
8. Parental overload – The parent should be present at every practice, game, and extra practice to dominate, observe carefully, add their opinion, and critique their child’s skills and efforts. Who else will remind them of their weaknesses and areas for improvement? We need our child to know that we are there so that he can constantly seek approval. This is called “support”. All of this is false.
In part 2 (Sports for young people in the United States: a guide for parents to avoid the pitfalls), we will present solutions and advice to parents.
(Joanna Lohman is a USSF B Licensed Coach who specializes in the mental, physical, and emotional development of young athletes. After retiring from a 16-year professional career, she became the first player in Washington Spirit history to have her jersey retired. Lohman, who played for the US national team in 2001, 2006-07, while playing, built a platform for social impact as a sports diplomat. She continues her influence as a mentalist coach, professional speaker, human rights activist and author of “Raising tomorrow’s champions.” She resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her wife, Melodie, and dog, Dewey. Her website is: joannalohman.com