I've had the opportunity to be a high school coach for Osakis Cross Country and Osakis Track and Field since 2011. Through my experiences as a coach, I have gained some practical insight on the pressures of specialization in youth sports and activities. The effects of specialization are certainly well documented in studies, reports, and even by Eric Morken (Echo Press/Osakis Review Sports Editor). In addition to the effects on young athletes' health, motivation, and time to do important sampling of other activities, I find the trajectory that kids are put on at such an early age can significantly alter their communities.
The name on the front of the jersey used to matter more than the name on the back. Due to the numerous clubs, leagues, AAU, Junior Olympic teams, kids can now be a part of so many different teams with so many different kids. This herds them toward individualism and creates potential conflict on the high school team with a weakening of team chemistry and a coach's ability to create cohesion around team values. Eventually, those nostalgic moments we have about our high school teams are caught at a crossroads between parents', young athletes', and coaches' expectations on the young athletes' role on the high school team.
The community's workforce and economic engine depend on our youth. Kids used to be able to hold part-time jobs that would give them opportunities to build their skill sets and networks to develop them toward an eventual career. With the amount of activities that young athletes are pressured to participate in, it leaves little time for jobs. The sports become jobs. This limits the availability and reliability of our small business workforce. The less kids can sample other activities and invest in their education, the more it hampers future innovation. Those great ideas that are home-grown sprout from the jack-of-all trades environment that rural communities offer.
Many more proposals for new public facilities, or updated public facilities, are being driven by youth sports. These expensive facilities often require long-term public financing, leveraging local and state tax dollars to build and maintain them. Options are what our children need, but we are not preparing kids to become pro athletes. We should not be persuaded with proposals for sports facilities that include our tax dollars for promises of economic benefit (see the fourth sheet of ice in Alexandria that keeps coming back up).
Participation is the metric that matters at the youth levels. Being a part of something with short bouts of hard work, not long grinds of repetition, is what builds skill sets, mindsets, and versatile young people that will adapt to future challenges and contribute to important achievements in their lives, jobs, and mentoring of the generations to come after them. Coaches and parents need to help young athletes and schools redefine their metric for success. We don't need to give participation trophies, but we need to emphasize and recognize effort and self-sacrifice. Those qualities are the difference-makers in our children's futures.
The challenge to parents and coaches is to balance both self-awareness with the well-being of the child/athlete. The lure of winning can sometimes blind us adults to the bigger picture. If you have, or mentor, a young athlete, here is a list of things to be aware of:
• Young athletes need rest. Have the young athlete map out all the different things they are doing on a calendar and total up the time/week, consider the level of maturity the athlete, and try to limit that time to a max of 15-20 hours/week.
• All young athletes should take at least a week of time off between seasons of sports. Allow the specific muscles and energy systems time to recover, adapt, and get stronger.
• Keep that plate colorful. Nutrition is very important.
• Sports should be fun. The first question a young athlete should be asked while on the ride home with a parent/mentor is: "Did you have fun?" If it is not fun for a long period of time, it will manifest into unhealthy and unnecessary stress.
• Don't get lured into being told what you want to hear. If the careers of those who are working with your young athlete depend on fees from camps, participation in non-school leagues, any positive feedback should be scrutinized or at least run by people with long-term relationships with the young athlete (teachers, coaches, friends).
• Make sure the college is a fit from a financial and career side, first. Kids from high school sports teams often go to college and quit playing that sport after just one season. As a coach, there's nothing harder to watch than a former athlete leave college after his or her first year because it wasn't what they expected.
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Osakis Voices is a rotating column written by community leaders who share their thoughts in their field of expertise.