We Should Work Them Like Rented Mules . . . Not!

The general approach to youth sports with the goal of creating adult champions and elite athletes is to engage kids in serious training at a young age and make sure they specialize in that sport because there are many, many hours of training needed. We have espoused the contrary opinion that children should not specialize in archery at an early age, that they should explore other sports and participate in a variety of them. Many of the things they get out of participation in other sports are beneficial to their archery in any case.

Two recent “articles” highlight these points. Here’s an excerpt from one:

The 10,000-Hour Rule For Sporting Success Is Largely A Myth, So Let Kids Dabble by Sean Ingle

A Danish study, which looked at the differences between 148 elite stars in multiple sports – including canoeing, cycling, rowing, sailing, skiing, swimming, track and field and triathlon – compared with 95 near-elite athletes in the same disciplines, found a similarly surprising picture.

As the academics noted, the near-elite athletes accumulated “significantly more training hours as early as age nine and continued to complete more hours through early adolescence until age 15” compared with elites. The elites also had their first national and international competitions at an older age. It did not matter. The elites intensified their training regime during late adolescence and went past them.

Epstein notes that the research points a similar way in most sports. “Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in which they will eventually become experts,” he writes. “Instead they tend to ‘sample’ a wide number of sports in an unstructured or lightly unstructured environment” before specialising only later.

Why might this be? Part of it is that early specialisation and highly structured training can lead to lower motivation, burnout and potentially increased injury rates. But there is a more fundamental point that Epstein wants to make: acquiring skills in multiple sports, often via unstructured play, helps develop creativity and equips people better to handle fresh challenges later in their sporting life.

Also, on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel recently there was a segment called The Norwegian Way (Season 25, Episode 5, Air date: May 21, 2019). This segment focused on Norway’s youth sports programs, which basically focus on inclusion and fun and not winning and losing. Races are run but lists of finishers aren’t produced. Soccer/football matches are had but the score is not kept. Competitions are had but as far as possible kept local so as to not create traveling expenses for parents. Participation is key and participation fees are low . . . and if the fee cannot be afforded by a child’s family, the children are allowed to participate anyway. Coaching is egalitarian, not focused on finding the “talented” athletes. This is for kids from 6 to 12 years of age. If a child after that point wants to participate more significantly, then focused training and all of the rest kicks in. By the way, Norway’s traditional sports are winter sports and Norway took more medals than any other country in the last Winter Olympics. Apparently their youth programs haven’t undermined their success.

Also interesting is how they pay of all of their youth sports programs and elite training facilities: sports betting. The government runs the sports betting programs in country and skims their sport program funding off the top.

The takeaway for archery is important here: focus upon participation and coaching and fun, not upon “talent development.” Shoving kids into competitions with medals and trophies is unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. We are, of course, the country which has decided more often than not to give identical trophies to one and all participants in a youth sport. It would be less expensive and create less trash to give none.

Another takeaway is that competitive youth sports are dominated by the relative age effect. To make competitions “fair,” youths are put into age groups. But studies have shown that the kids at the “older” end of each of these age brackets dominate and as a result receive special attention, so they dominate even more. This biases such competitions in favor of more physical mature youths, not necessarily more talented. Just forgoing the “judging” aspects of the youth programs would solve this problem.

Let me know what you think.

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