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Rethinking athlete and program development, the argument against premature selection in youth athletics

Everyone knows the anecdotal, inspirational stories of athletes who were cut from their high school basketball team or only played one year of varsity football and yet went on to have great athletic success at the college and/or professional levels. In the sports world we often use those stories to encourage players and to shun the idea of quitting. Interestingly those stories are actually indicative of less known statistics about the ills of determining an athletes fate too early. Those stories become great stories because they are simply uncommon. The Michael Jordan type of stories actually provide a basis for the argument that cutting kids, or placing them on a “lower tier” team is actually counterproductive and plagues youth, middle school and high school athletics. The reality is the majority of kids who are cut or placed on lower tiers, rarely ever try out for sports again. 

The premise of youth athletics is supposed to be educational athletics, a springboard for future athletic participation and ultimately future success. So we need to treat it as such. There are numerous studies that show just how damaging making cuts and/or dividing kids into A teams, B teams, C teams can be, not only to those particular kids but to the entire program. 

The “Changing the Game” Project is an incredible resource for navigating best practices for athletics starting with the building blocks at the youth level. The project’s mission is, “to ensure that we return youth sports to our children, and put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball’”.The Changing the Game Project has outlined four ways to institutionally change youth athletics that will ultimately benefit kids and programs as a whole. Here is a summary of those four things:

  1. At the youth level, develop large groups of athletes instead of just the “elite” ones, don’t cut and don’t focus on A,B and C teams 
  2. “Focus on developing all players at the youngest ages, with particular attention given to helping the less skilled ones catch up technically to the stronger ones. Thus, when they finish their growth spurt, we have a much larger pool of adequately skilled individuals to choose from, instead of just thekids who happened to have facial hair at 12 but stopped growing at 13.”
  3. Stop creating a win-at-all-costs mentality and culture in youth athletics 
  4. Teach all coaches the difference between talent identification and talent selection

It seems simple that a head coach at the high school level would want as many athletes to choose from at the start of the season. However, many districts, schools, communities still operate in an outdated A, B, C team (or cutting kids) system without necessarily realizing the overall issues with that practice. While each of the 4 ways outlined above are important, the difference between talent identification and talent selection is worth expanding on because it provides a solid basis for change. Changing the Game distinguishes between the two by saying, “Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful in events taking place in the near future. Talent identification, on the other hand, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is pretty simple; talent identification is an art. One yields great results today; the other builds elite athletes and winning teams for the future.”

With this, again is a reminder that once athletes are cut at the lower levels they don’t often return to try-outs ever again. Coaches unintentionally limit themselves and their programs when they allow for this to happen at the lower levels in their district. 

Oftentimes because high school coaches have plenty on their plate, being heavily involved with or making systematic changes at the youth and middle school levels can fall through the cracks. The argument here is that making these changes can have an impact on the trajectory of the entire program from youth to varsity. When you have a larger pool of athletes to choose from, who’ve all been equally invested in especially in terms of technical skills and development, AND are given the opportunity to show growth, the varsity program will reflect that with success. When we acknowledge the benefit this has on the high school program, it is also important that we remember just how perfectly it fits with the overall goal of educational athletics which is to keep kids engaged in healthy activities, to allow them to learn outside of the classroom and to encourage them to continue to develop as young people. 

There are a lot of interesting thoughts here. Talk to me about it on twitter @maddiebethann and as always, stay tuned to The Scoop.