Myth 4: “It’s Necessary To Separate Out the Best Performers To Help Them Reach Their Full Potential.”

Incredibly, we now are engaging in this practice at age nine and even younger! This practice has developed into a have/have not structure that loads up one team with talent, often at the expense of another. Perhaps no topic evokes more emotion than this one: the parents of nine-year-old “stars” want to see their child on the best team, where s/he can get the most recognition and success (i.e., wins), while the parents of the “non-stars” lament having to sit through game after game of often lopsided losses. So, what do developmental specialists, sports psychologists, and sports figures think about this practice?

Fine and Sachs suggest that “the idea of starting young children in competitive sports is based on the premise that these children will have an advantage over other children who learn the sport at a later age. Ironically, research does not support this contention. In fact, some of the studies show adverse outcomes, especially when the child’s participation isn’t entirely voluntary.” (13).   Why is this true? It’s most likely related to the tremendous variability in development rates that occur in the pre-adolescent child. Burnett notes that “some kids who develop skills quickly can reach a plateau in the immediate preteen years, and the other kids may catch up with them. [Other research] reminds us not to become preoccupied with continually pressuring our kids to perfect their skills during those years from ages seven to eleven, because, due to growth spurts and coordination problems, the skills may be put on ‘hold’” (14). Griffin also emphasizes that the evidence points away from this idea that kids benefit from extra training. Research on the parents of Olympic swimmers and world-class tennis players indicated that “none of these parents encouraged their children in sports to produce great athletes. Instead, they saw athletics simply as a healthy activity for their children” (15). In other words, athletic success was a reward, not a goal.So it should be for us.

Such results and comments by developmental experts should prompt us to re-evaluate our current practice of offering extensive clinics at the youngest ages. It’s true that these clinics seem to be “fun” for the kids, depending on the quality of the clinician, of course. In this sense, the clinics are satisfying an important, developmentally-appropriate need, and the kids are learning to enjoy the game. However, we should not delude ourselves into believing that we are producing any real, long-term benefits, other than maintaining interest in the game (which is important!). True, extra training will produce a better nine-year-old player, but it won’t necessarily make them a better fourteen-year-old player. We are all born with a certain amount of athletic ability, and we can work hard to use all of our abilities, but we can’t exceed them. As the saying goes, "if you want to be an Olympic athlete, you should choose your parents carefully!" Ability is primarily due to genes, not training.

We shouldn't leave this subject without discussing the latest craze: year-round training and specialized programs (e.g., "Academies"). As we noted earlier, it is difficult to predict the eventual abilities of a pre-adolescent child. However, there are numerous programs aimed at the 8 - 12-year-old athlete. Why? I believe it is primarily financial, not developmental. At this age, there are many kids (and parents) with dreams of future glory. So, it's pretty easy to convince them to spend money on little John or Jane's future career. By the age of 12, most players (and their parents) have figured out where John or Jane fits into the sports ability heirarchy, and only the obviously talented ones are likely to go for the extra training. It's at this age where the players can really start to benefit from the extra training, but there aren't as many of them, so you see far fewer opportunities. However, if you look at successful programs in almost any sport, you will probably find that they put an emphasis on skill development in the 12 - 14-year old group. At younger ages, the emphasis is on learning to love the game.

We all want our children to be successful. Fine and Sachs consider three ways to look at success: 1) Success means winning, 2) Success means having put out 100 percent effort and done the best you could on a given day, and 3) Success means having achieved your potential.

The first option describes the way many view success in our society: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” Unfortunately, for every winner, there is a corresponding “loser.” In fact, in any given tournament, there is only one winner, and seven, or 15 (or 31) “losers.” Do all these other teams deserve the label “loser,” especially given it’s connotations in our society? And what about the “winners?” Eventually, the superteams will lose a game. Does that suddenly make them losers? I think not. Winning is fine, but needs to kept in perspective.

Put differently, “success is a process, not a product.” Fine and Sachs believe the second way is a much better approach to use in youth sports.“ Doing your best or trying your best is the most important statement you/your child can make about the importance of an activity and the meaning it has for you.”

The third definition of success is related to the second, but often is given too much attention. “Potential” is difficult to measure, or even predict, especially in young children. “To be a star or champion takes hard work, motivation, support from family and friends, and athletic skills. ... Hard work and motivation and good coaching to develop skills can outweigh “deficits” in your child’s physical makeup. Especially in youth sport, it is a mistake to label a child as one who will never make it” (16). Since achieving one’s potential is such a complex process, it seems ridiculous to write someone off before they have barely had a chance to succeed, which is what happens if we relegate them to lesser teams at an early age and ignore their development.

These concepts need to be considered in conjunction with the “winning is important” attitude discussed earlier. Since it (winning) isn’t important to most kids, why should we worry about putting them in an environment that promotes such activity? Is this the way we want soccer to go?

Darren Treasure, an exercise psychologist who is also a member of the USSF national coaching staff, recently wrote about the differences between promoting a ‘task-orientation’ rather than an ‘ego-orientation’ in young players. “Children under the age of 11 ... do not have the cognitive ability to understand winning and losing. ... From a motivational perspective ... it is important that we as parents and coaches attempt to promote task orientation in our young players. By providing ways of defining success other than winning, we can ensure that our players remain motivated throughout their soccer career. Research with elite-level athletes has shown that these individuals are high in both ego and task orientation ” (17).

Ronald Quinn, a member of the U. S. Youth Soccer Coaching Committee, takes this idea even further: “The needs of the child, while playing soccer, should be placed above the needs, convenience and self-interest of the adults. True player development focuses on the development of the player, not the development of the team! At the youth level up to the age of 10, this should be the only criteria used in designing and running programs.

“If they feel good about what they do, they will continue playing. If they continue playing, the chances of improving are greatly enhanced. If a child stops playing, they have no chance. This does not mean taking a child our of their social circle for the sake of a “more competitive environment” for the early-maturing 8- or 9-year-old. It means allowing children the opportunity to be successful within their own age group” (18).

What does all of this have to do with your soccer (or sports) program? Recalling the SICA survey, among youth age 6 - 11, soccer participation rose 17 percent since 1996, which was a larger gain than either basketball or football. However, among youth age 12 - 17, soccer participation was down across the board, showing a 17 percent decline, which was the largest decline among all the sports studied (10). The participation rates for the two age groups also reflect the fact that many children chose other activities once they enter the 12+ age group. The total numbers reflect a 42 percent drop in overall participation. We should be asking ourselves whether we could tolerate a 40+ percent drop in any U-12+ age level, and what consequence that would have on the program. If you don’t maximize the numbers at the lower ages, you might not have enough players to field a single team in some older age groups.

It is likely that the common practice of segregating players by ability and encouraging winning at young ages is driving players out of the program, and it is quite possible that this situation is one reason people are not enrolling in the first place! Finally, be aware that it isn’t just the lower-ability players who drop out; many high achievers also leave the program. Lastly, we must realize that the time and competitive pressures on teenagers are significant, and sometimes we (that is, youth sports) won’t make the cut. Taken together, these facts suggest that continuing these practices of segregating players could result in a real shortage of players at older ages.

Finally, from a player and team development standpoint, can we really make a believable argument that a team learns all that much if they win most games 8 - 0? Similarly, the learning is minimal when you are constantly losing 6-0. This practice results in an unsuccessful and often discouraging environment for 50 percent of the participants. For the other 50 percent, always winning may seem fun but this is not necessarily an advantage in preparing them for higher competitive levels. At younger age levels, it makes more sense to give everyone a chance to succeed, which may elevate the overall talent level as a result since “the mark of truly fine players is that they make everyone around them better” (19).

Myth 1: “It’s good for the kids!"
Myth 2: “It’s what the kids want!”
Myth 3: “Everyone Else is Doing It So We Have To!”
Myth 4: “It’s necessary to separate out the best performers to help them reach their full potential!”
Myth 5: “It doesn’t do them any harm!”

Return to The Youth Sports Experience