Prep Sports

Your young athlete is not 'elite'

Justis column: Research suggest they may even drop sport

Youth soccer players compete in a tournament at the Tuma Sports Complex in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)
Youth soccer players compete in a tournament at the Tuma Sports Complex in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

Watching your child play sports, racking up the wins and bringing home the medals is a dream come true for most parents.

You travel here and there every weekend to support the teams. The kids love playing, you love watching them play and you can’t help thinking about their future success and college scholarships.

Take a breath.

Your children are not “elite” junior athletes, travel teams or not. Medals or not.

“There are no elite 10-year-old backstroke swimmers,” said Gordon MacLelland of “Working with Parents in Sports.”

“There are no high performance 11-year-old soccer players. There are no elite level nine-year-old tennis players. Your seven-year-old child might be able to swing a golf club but she’s not an elite athlete.

“They are children. That’s all — children.”

Hate to bust your bubble. If your child happens to be a little better in their chosen sport, that’s wonderful. But more likely than not, kids who have been pushed and promoted at young ages don’t participate in sport much past their midteens. It’s been documented.

According to, this is not restricted just to top-performing young athletes.

“Examination of the broader athletic population revealed performances at one age grade were poor predictors of performances at subsequent age grades, until the comparison between U17 and U20 at the earliest. Furthermore, the results revealed that those athletes who go on to achieve success as U20s were often not the top performers as U13s.”

Who’s to blame for kids quitting sports early? Adults, pure and simple.

According to MacLelland:

— Coaches are to blame because they’ve “put success ahead of smiles, excellence ahead of enjoyment ... It’s hard to blame coaches because they’re doing what they were taught for the past 30 years, sports coaching courses have been mostly focused on sports science (training) and workout design, skills practices and so on. We didn’t teach them that the REAL secret to coaching success (is) about connecting with athletes and helping them to be all they can be. In other words ... we never coached coaches to coach.”


— Parents have to wear some of the blame because ... ”they, not the athletes, are the targets of the elite junior sports salespeople ... Far too many parents, in spite of common sense and logic, believe it’s a very small step from kicking a (goal for an) under 5 soccer team to playing for Real Madrid ... as a result, they do all they can to (put their child) into ‘junior academy’ programs ... and into professional advanced level coaching programs ... Love your kids. Let them fall in love with their sport. That’s all you need to do.”

— Sports have to accept some responsibility because “they’ve pushed and promoted the ‘pathway.’ Sports were sold the pathway as the solution to performance problems — a theoretical performance production line from entry level to excellence ... the pathway model that’s created many of the problems we’re currently experiencing with participation (numbers) and driving the alarming teenage drop out rate in so many sports around the globe.”

— Schools have to wear some of the fault “for the proliferation of junior elite sports academies and institutes. Increasingly secondary schools are establishing ‘sports-academies’ of some form as a marketing (tool) to attract more families to the school.”

— Private providers must accept some of the responsibility. “As a business owner myself, I know how companies can thrive in the highly competitive sports industry. However, as it is in all industries, positive business practices (include) INTEGRITY, INTEGRITY and INTEGRITY ... If you’re selling products and services to ... parents who are desperate to help their children succeed and over-promising that your product or service will help turn their children into champions then take a deep breath (look inside and) change what you’re doing.”

MacLelland offers the following solutions.

— Change the terminology. “Never use the words ‘elite’ or ‘high performance’ in the same sentence as ‘junior.’ Stop thinking about elite junior athletes.”

— Change the marketing. “Stop trying to sell parents and young athletes that you’ve got the secret to success and all they need to be a sporting super star is in a bottle or a jar or a bar or in an expensive piece of equipment.”

— Forget trying to turn kids into elite level performers. “Stop pushing children into ‘academy’ programs and stop listening to snake-oil salespeople in the sports industry who are telling you that you need to get kids into ... deliberate practice sessions before they can walk. It’s insane.”

— Concentrate on creating sporting experiences which provide the environment and the opportunities to “fall in love” with sport. “The one consistent factor all successful athletes — and every great performer, for that matter, possess is not ... the ability to run 40 meters in a few seconds — it’s that they really love what they do — so they do what they love.”


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— Change the way you think about children and sport. “It’s about the long-game. It’s about ... putting a smile on their face, connecting them with the experience of sport then — in the longer term ... guiding, coaching and developing the ones who love what they’re doing ...”

— Repeat the following until you start to believe it. “There is no such thing as elite junior athletes, there is no such thing as elite junior athletes.”

“Success is a terrible thing and a wonderful thing. If you enjoy it, it’s wonderful. If it starts eating away at you and are waiting for more from me, or what can I do to top this, then you’re in trouble. Just do what you love.” — Gene Wilder.

l 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

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