Prep Sports

How much is too much for young athletes?

Justis column: More time should be spent developing skill, having fun

Should youth athletes spend more time developing skills than playing games? (The Gazette)
Should youth athletes spend more time developing skills than playing games? (The Gazette)

Watching my 11-year-old grandson play three basketball games in one day, I happened to notice one of the best players on the team was not quite himself.

He didn’t seem to have any energy and an unusual number of shots were not making the basket.

He didn’t look like he was having any fun.

He plays on two teams, which means practicing for two teams. Was he just tired, not feeling well or worse, was he showing signs of burnout at the tender age of 11?

I personally feel there is never enough learning time in youth sports. Playing a game assists in learning the sport, but I believe more time needs to be spent on skill development and that’s difficult to do in one or two practices each week.

So how do parents and coaches balance practice time without developing problems of burnout and overtraining? Are there guidelines for how many hours kids should spend in practice?

I think the 10,000 hours-of-practice rule suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” is losing its luster among many youth sports advocates. There’s another guideline that states a young athlete should not practice any more hours per week than their age.

Eleven hours per week of practice for an 11-year-old? No way.

Recognizing a high percentage of kids are quitting organized sports by the time they reach 13, we need to find a way for skill development in a reasonable amount of time while still making the experience fun.

An article in Coaching Young Athletes suggests development doesn’t have to happen in just formal settings.

“There are ways to give kids a greater exposure to sports practice without putting them into a specialized formal single sport program,” the article noted.

Suggestions include:

— Multisport participation. Don’t try to pile all those hours into one sport. Many believe a prerequisite to becoming competent in a specific sport is being a good general all-around athlete. However, there is a point where it can go too far and kids and families can become overcommitted in time and financially.

— Athletes need not be specifically practicing for their sport to be developing skills related to that sport. A general strength-based session or a gymnastics-related circuit is valuable in developing skills that are transferable to many sports.

— Vigorous active play. Providing opportunities for kids to get out and actively play can help. Taking them to parks and playgrounds and other sport fields where they can run, jump, climb, push, pull, lift and balance.

— If the child wants to throw or kick a ball, go play with them. A few minutes can gradually build up to a lot of time spent involved in general and sport-specific rehearsal.

Can the above kinds of activities amount to 11 hours per week? Absolutely. But it doesn’t seem forced, can be really fun and all can contribute to success in other sports.

An article originally published in “Los Angeles Sports & Fitness” by Brian McCormick, the performance director for “Train for Hoops,” noted “When a child quits sports at an early age, he is less likely to resume these activities later. Kids love to learn and explore. They do not compare themselves to others. They enjoy playing and learning.

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“A teenager is unlikely to try a new sport because he does not want to fail. People associate a failure in an activity with a character flaw ... Youth sports are not the pre-minor leagues. Children are not miniature professionals ... youth sports should be fun, child-centered, exploratory and learning-oriented, not a competitive caldron or preprofessional training.”

Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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